Michael's Monthly Column "Throwing My Loop"

Leadership With Horses And Humans


      They are connected you know.  Behaviors that result in success with humans are intertwined in so many ways with those that help horses.  I didn’t know that for years, and now that I’m learning about those connections, life is so different, and so much more rewarding. 

     As a younger man, I “knew” all about training horses.  You simply showed them who was boss, and if they didn’t like it, that was tough.  You “made” them behave.  Training was simply a matter of “telling” the animal what you wanted, and demanding that your bidding be done.  And if for some reason, the horse didn’t respond after repeated attempts to show him the way, then the explanation was simple.  The horse “wasn’t a good one.”  Using that method, you never had to admit to making a mistake, nothing was ever your fault, and you could be smug, superior, and totally confident that horses simply were just not like they once were.

      The same thing happened in leadership.  I went to school, became supposedly educated, and was hired for a leadership position.  Since I “knew” all about leadership, for the life of me, I couldn’t see any problems in my future.  After all, professors, Harvard Case Studies, and endless books explained the whole thing in a very simple manner.  Leadership and managing was about “Organizing, Planning, Controlling and Follow-Up.” Business was about profit, loss, sales, inventory and bookkeeping.  The most important thing in ‘bidness’ (and everyone knew this) was the “bottom line.”  Dollars were the key, sitting atop a financial pyramid the goal, and retirement was the promised land.

      So, armed with this knowledge, I entered the world, and… well, let’s just say things didn’t go very smoothly.

      It wasn’t that I didn’t have some success.  There was a career, a home, and material goods, but there was something missing.  There was a still small voice in me that said, “This is not the way.”

      I think we all hear that voice, and we all push it aside.  Most of us fail to listen to that something inside.  We wrap ourselves in what we think is a comfortable world of supposed security, and wonder at long last, why we feel so empty.

      With all my vaunted credentials, my leadership skills produced employees who seemed apathetic and listless.  My teaching duties at universities found students only interested in what time class was over, and my horses wanted to be let loose and left alone.  And for the life of me, I couldn’t figure out the problem.  And then…the answer came.

      The problem was that I thought I knew about things.  In truth, what I didn’t know would require a book so thick, you might never finish reading it.  My pail of knowledge was empty and full of holes.

     For reasons I still don’t understand, I woke up later in life.  I remind myself of something that must have happened long ago.  I can see a Texas cowboy in the year of 1860 riding his horse tending cattle.  The horse is unruly and tough-mouthed, and the cowboy jerks on him furiously to teach him some sense.  “Danged fool,” he says, pulling him as hard as he can. He can’t even back up.”  But the rider resigns himself to the fact the cattle must be rounded up, and if this nag is all he has, well, so be it.  Then he looks across the Rio Grande.  There stands a Mexican on a horse staring back at him.  They look at each other for a time.

      Then the Mexican does something.  The Texan can’t quite see what it was, and suddenly the horse, the Mexican and his sombrero are spinning like a top.  Just as suddenly, they whirl to a stop.  Tex shakes his head, gets off his horse, and says to himself, “How in the world did he do that?”

      And that’s what happened to me.  I began to see people who could spin horses, and teachers who could spin the mind of students.  Business leaders who could excite the troops, and together they accomplished great things. And like that Texas cowboy must have done long ago, I waded into the water, and walked to the other side. 

     There is nothing wrong with going to college and reading books.  I recommend those activities for everyone.  Problem is, and I mean no disrespect to higher education here, that experience will give you a great deal of technical knowledge, but little in terms of how to live.  Nor will your formal education really teach you how to practice your craft, whether that work be selling computers or managing a thoroughbred farm.

      That may be a shocking statement, but the truth is physicians don’t know how to heal just because the MD is awarded.  Psychologists don’t know how to “therap” the moment the Ph.D. is bestowed, and teachers don’t immediately know how to teach simply because they are certified.  And hardly anyone can turn a profit just because of the successful completion of a business degree.  And riding horses for a lifetime doesn’t make you a horseman.

      So all that begs the question…what does help us live more effectively? How could we improve our ability to deal with others, be they humans or horses?  The answers lie in others sometimes.  That vaquero who spins his horse has something to teach us if we are wise enough to ask.  And some answers lie in us…in our own past and our own experiences.

      One day, I was working with Old Shine in the round pen.  As usual, things were not going swimmingly.  Suddenly, I hear, “Honey?” Now I was fairly certain Shine didn’t say that considering the mood we were in, so I turned, and there stood my loved one with her arms folded on the fence rail.
     “Yes, dear?”  I said impatiently.
     “You told me once you did great things for a particular CEO of your company.”
     “Yes, I did say that,” I answered, really hoping this conversation would be over as soon as possible.
     “Then you told me when he moved on, and the next fellow came in and took over, you were almost fired.  That you couldn’t stand him, and you were miserable.”
     “Yes, yes,” I said shortly showing my desire to get on with what I was doing.
     “Why did you work for one man and not the other?” she asked.
     “Rebecca, that is a very complex question,” I snorted.  “And right now, I’m trying to get somewhere with this horse.”
     With her arms still folded, blue eyes looking right through me, she said, “Once you get a clear answer in your own heart as to why you worked for one man, and not the other, you will get somewhere with your horse.”

                                                                             Michael Johnson

See all Michael’s books, tapes and CDs at michaeljohnsonbooks.com. Look for Michael’s latest release, Reflections of a Cowboy, to be released in the spring of 2004.

Michael heading for the great Sonny Gould

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