Leadership and horse sense
I got home late last night from speaking at a meeting about 175 miles west of our ranch, and since this morning is my column deadline and I was driving until 1:30 a.m. in the wee hours of the morning, I’m going to write about the speech.
It’s either that or write about the magical properties of sunflower seeds and gas station coffee to keep you driving and alert late at night. I’ll pick the speech.
The group I spoke to was the Rural Leadership North Dakota class of aspiring leaders who come from all across our state. I’m pretty familiar with the group having served on their guiding council for six years and I believe in what it does to prepare new leaders for the challenges in our state and communities. I was asked to speak on the subject of “leadership in a changing world.”
I’ve been given plenty of leadership roles in my community and state, and there has been a whole lot of change where I live so I guess my research was done. Just had to boil it down and put it in a 30-minute speech.
I tried to think about what the speeches were like that I’ve most enjoyed listening to and that I have gotten the most out of. I’ve always liked speakers who were good storytellers, and I remembered the speeches best when the story illustrated their point. A lot of the good leaders I’ve known have been good storytellers, too.
I saw plenty of change as I drove to the meeting through the traffic of one of the world’s hottest oil exploration booms in western North Dakota. My wife and I got married in a little white steepled country church in that area 10 years ago this July. When we got married the church was surrounded by canola and durum fields. Today, there are at least a dozen oil wells, pumping derricks, gas flares and tank batteries surrounding the church. Things have changed. Some will say for better, some will say for worse. But like a marriage, you accept both, for better or worse.
The story I used as I thought about leadership and change was about horses I’ve trained in the round pen of our corrals. I’ve seen a few “horse whisperers” work with fresh colts and learned a lot from them about horses, and people.
When you have a new colt in the round pen, they’ll run around the outside edge of the pen in “flight” mode. Animals are fight or flight, and horses are flight. If we stand in the middle of the pen and wave our arms or toss a rope or make some other predatory movement, we increase the chaos and the flight.
But, if you watch that horse, things will change after awhile. Their mannerisms change, the look in their eye, the way they hold their head, and then, if it’s me in the middle, I put my arms at my side, drop my shoulder a little, look away and make a quarter turn away from the horse. And that horse will leave the chaos at the edge of the pen, walk to me, and, sometimes, even stick its nose over my shoulder. It’s safe, it’s unchaotic, it’s time to learn and to lead.
Change is often chaotic and it tends to put us in flight mode, but a leader will bring us to the middle for a conversation where there is trust and calmness. We become better together in that relationship.
We get through change, and chaos, by coming to the middle. A good leader will get us there. Call it horse sense, or cowboy logic, or a little of both when we discuss leadership in a changing world. ❖