Leadership lessons from the saddle

Consultants Amy Skolen and Susan Allen stand together in front of the marker board, Allen ready with a marker as Skolen is about to begin her leadership lesson.

”What is leadership and how do we apply it?” she asks the small audience.

The attendees talk of command-and-control, position power, coercive power, the importance of trying to understand your employees and the overriding notion that good leaders find a way to inspire their employees past the visible horizon and toward some future goal. Allen, meanwhile, writes everything down.

At first glance, this program may sound rather routine and academic for anyone who has ever attended an executive seminar or workshop on leadership development. But it’s not as if these attendees are sitting in a classroom, auditorium or hotel meeting room.

The marker board rests on an easel anchored in mud, surrounded by fencing. That outdoor leadership development classroom doubles as a corral, with a small pile of horse manure neatly to one side and large horses grazing nervously inside the fencing, no more than six yards away.

The academic session didn’t last long that morning. Skolen ended the exercise by calling over one of the horses. And suddenly, her guests found themselves face to, well, shoulder to an animal that once led men into war and carried rough-and-tumble cowboys into the Old West.

And with that introduction, the real lessons in executive leadership began.

Experiential learning

Welcome to the Equine Business Experience, a package of experiential leadership development programs developed by business partners Skolen and Allen and introduced officially this past summer to local business executives and their teams.

Skolen, who for a number of years provided leadership development and strategic planning consulting for her business clients, grew up with horses and decided to combine her work with her love of horses. Horses, she says, serve as a profound teaching tool because of the instinctive ways they interact with other horses and people when it comes to relationship building, trust and leadership.

The concept is by no means new. Therapists have been using horses for years to help children who are physically or mentally challenged. And now, across the country, the concept is being adapted to teach business leaders how to be more sensitive to their employees and management teams while effectively guiding them toward their visionary goals.

”It’s really about creating self-awareness and accountability,” she says of the value of her program.

Allen, meanwhile, had been a marketing consultant and found that many of her clients needed to address more fundamental leadership and other big-picture strategic planning issues before effectively designing a marketing plan.

”I wanted some experiential learning to open people up for change,” Allen says of her attraction to Skolen’s equine ambitions.

Together, they tested their newly developed curriculum for about a year and a half on business leaders and other leadership development partners before launching their company, the Shared Vision Alliance — ”Partners in Organizational Evolution.” The pair will run most of their programs from a brand-new stable on newly acquired property off Route 79 South between Bridgeville and Southpointe. The property includes an indoor riding rink for winter equine programs, pasture land and at least 15 horses. The facility, which Skolen and Allen call the Horsense Learning Center, is scheduled to open this month.

The programs aren’t cheap. The complete package for larger executive teams costs upwards of $7,500 and includes a diagnostic meeting with the team prior to the day-long event to determine its needs and desired goals; an intensive day-long program that includes leading, herding and riding horses and other creative exercises; a post-event meeting to evaluate the event and its effect on the team; and a videotape of the event for training use by the client.

Individuals looking to develop their own leadership abilities can sign up for eight equine-oriented, one-on-one coaching sessions for $3,500.

Horse sense

Why horses, you may be asking? Back at the ranch, Skolen hands a lead rope to a participant and asks him how he would approach the horse, fasten the lead to its bridle and guide it to a spot in the corral. It was leadership in its simplest form, he thought.

So he took the rope, held it in front of him with one hand, walked directly over to the grazing horse and looked him in the eye. With that, the horse lifted its head and ears warily and leaned away. As the participant attached the lead and pulled to get the horse to go, the horse just stood there. Nothing.

Now, Skolen asks him, how would you approach one of your managers or a co-worker with, say, a revolutionary new idea or constructive criticism? Would you stop and think about that person’s personality, motivations or circumstances before approaching? Could you charge right up and spout off your idea without scaring that person away or threatening his or her personal space? And how might people react if you simply threw your idea at them and told them what to do?

People may not be quick to show how they really feel in such situations, but as Skolen points out, horses certainly are. Horses, she says, demonstrate a number of innate qualities that make them exceptional leadership development tools.

They are considered prey and herd animals, which means they instinctively stay alert together watching out for predators. The horse that is the most alert and which is the most resourceful when it comes to locating food and water becomes the Alpha, or leader, and the other horses naturally follow. It’s not so much a matter of which horse is the toughest and meanest — it’s the one that is most alert.

Moreover, as prey animals, horses have eyes on the sides of their heads instead of the front, so they can’t see directly in front of their faces. But they can see more than 270 degrees around them, which means they spend most of their time looking at the panoramic ”big picture,” which helps them stay alert.

People, on the other hand, are considered predatory. Their eyes are in the center of the faces, which allows them to see directly in front of them. And most people tend to use their eyes to focus with intensity on other people, either to threaten them or send other nonverbal messages.

The man should have approached the horse calmly and in a more roundabout way, according to Skolen. And he never should have pointed his eyes — or his torso — directly at the horse’s head. He then should have talked reassuringly to the animal and petted it before reaching for the bridle.

Once he established trust, he could have simply tugged lightly on the lead, making a clicking sound to signal the horse to go, and walked with the horse as he pointed his head and body directly toward his goal.

Sensitivity training

”What I got out of this is mostly is an appreciation of the sensitivity you have to have with those you’re leading,” says Alberta ”Pudge” Lizza, manager of Howard Hanna Real Estate Services in Greensburg, who had never been around horses before. ”My leadership style tends to get very impatient with those who weren’t motivated or who didn’t show initiative.

”This was a real growth experience, because these horses graphically depicted our strengths. There is an integrity we got in the feedback from the horses. So I got a sincere appreciation for good leadership. I had taken it for granted, but it’s an art.”

Lizza, 54, who manages 20 real estate agents in her office, sold her company, Metro Real Estate Services, to Howard Hanna three years ago. Part of the reason she came to Skolen and Allen, she says, is because her three-year management contract was about to expire, and she was looking for ways to step back and figure out what she might do following her departure from her one-time business.

”I’m really trying to identify my strengths and weaknesses and to identify my passions,” Lizza says. ”I want to get involved in something I’m really passionate about.”

The Equine Business Experience, Skolen says, can help individuals as much as it can teach leadership and team-building.

”Horses allow for a more real-world experience, where the horse requires people to interact with something outside themselves,” Skolen says in her marketing materials. ”Through working with horses, we help people develop self-awareness and self-responsibility.”

As Lizza says, ” If you’re not growing, you’re dying. And if you’re not getting out and seeing something else or seeing things from a different perspective, you’re not growing.” How to reach: Shared Vision Alliance, (412) 257-6097, or www.sharedvisionalliance.com

Daniel Bates ([email protected]) is the editor of SBN Magazine.