Learning Leadership with Presence


March 21st, 2018

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What is leadership?

There are many perspectives on what the right kind of leadership is for the 21st Century. Most seem to acknowledge it is predominantly about learning to deal with ambiguity and complexity. But this isn’t new. It reminds me of the wonderful book written by Alan Watts: “The Wisdom of Insecurity: a Message for an Age of Anxiety” published in 1951. His message was essentially, that our quest for security, for certainty, for control is what is creating our anxiety, not the conditions we find ourselves in.

Getting uncomfortable with being uncomfortable

When thinking about learning to lead in this context, there are many phrases that get used like ‘getting comfortable with being uncomfortable’ or ‘knowing what to do when you don’t know what to do’; paradoxes that belie some simple, but perhaps difficult truths: Getting comfortable with being uncomfortable takes work, it is much more than basic leadership skills development wrapped up in leadership training courses.

This means developing the confidence to hold your nerve and experiment in uncertainty rather than rush to solution. It might be not knowing the answers, but trusting that you can ask the right questions and help others to work adaptively. It might mean having the self-awareness to notice patterns that block your creativity. These are not something that can be learnt quickly; but something that takes practice and commitment. It also takes courage too

This kind of development needs to be challenging; shifting some old patterns of belief or assumptions about where your power and confidence come from. It also needs to support a growing awareness of all of who you are, head, heart and body. This integrated self is where real, practical emotional intelligence stems from. It is on-going, evolving and growing as you learn to notice, in the moment, the choices you have.

Equine Assisted Leadership Development

I’ve spent the last 5 years researching how best to facilitate one of the most powerful methods of kickstarting this type of development: Equine Assisted Leadership Development.

It is experiential learning, but perhaps not as you’ve seen it before. The traditional emphasis is almost exclusively on the cognitive processing, the rational and analytical faculties. Working with horses demands something different. It requires all of you to be there; present to your thoughts, your body, your emotions, but also present to the ‘other’ and the environment. That ‘other’ is already and always present; there is nowhere to hide, no way to pretend.Horses won’t save your blushes, if you have forgotten about them in your rush to accomplish a task they will fall asleep; if bored they will yawn in your face. But if you connect, with yourself and with them, they will respond immediately. I have been developing leaders for over 20 years, I have never come across a method that gets to the heart of what is going on for a leader this quickly. This is a powerful method and it needs to be facilitated expertly to ensure that it is a safe learning environment, it is challenging and most importantly, relevant.

Horses are only part of the picture though. In my experience, supporting leaders to develop the physical awareness through embodied techniques helps both short and long term. In the short term, the techniques help leaders to notice what state they are in and some ways of influencing that. When we then test those techniques out with the horses, you can see the second a leader changes what’s going on for them on the inside. The penny drops on an immediate and deeply felt level; that stays with leaders for months, even years. In the long term, the practices of awareness and integration are physical and mental habits that strengthen and build. Real transformation isn’t something can be willed through mental effort, no matter how many leadership courses you go on. It is something that develops with attention, practice, curiosity and kindness.


Intrigued? Want to find out how we can help you, or a leader you know, develop?