The nature of leadership

My last blog in the 13 for 13 series coincides with the anniversary of the first silent language of leadership programme. I ran two more in 2013 and time and again I was amazed about the wisdom that unfolded in the presence of horses.

As you may have read in the other posts, my insights from 2013 have been varied and, as I finally understood while completing the dissertation for my MA, ultimately all link to my understanding of leadership.

In the process of action research and writing, what I was beginning to both form more clearly and understand more deeply was my perspective on the nature of leadership. Quoting from that dissertation:

“…  ‘ Leadership is not so much a role, as it is a process of shared learning – a catalyst for changing the status quo. Here the act of leading is a collaborative process of realising potential for purposeful advancement of the human condition.’ (Hames, 2007, p. 241)

In order to lead this way the leader needs to listen, to notice and to see what is already there, ready to emerge and they need to embody this themselves in such a way that others around them can also see this. Leadership becomes a process in which one is both follower and leader working together to both discover and co-create the future that serves the purpose of the system. In this model leadership doesn’t come necessarily from the top, it can come from everywhere. These leaders need different capabilities, listening, discernment in action, understanding the context and its resources, the system and its purpose and people and their desire will be critical. Many of these capabilities are found in silence, rather than words.

In this perspective, the role of both those who have been said to lead and those who have been said to follow shifts, the follower can no longer abdicate responsibility for their choice, the leader can no longer own the success of the venture, there is a partnership and beyond the split, the follower and the leader are embodied by each person. Perhaps the leadership side of us listens to what wants to happen now and the follower aspect then brings this about in our actions.”

In the ‘horse world’ many of us have believed for years that a herd is, usually, led by a ‘lead mare’, and that in order to move the herd the ‘lead mare’ needs to move (there is a role for the alpha male to protect and herd the mares too, that’s a different story). Similar to the story of the alpha wolf, this idea of a dominant leader seemed to match quite well with many of our actual leadership practices in organisations.

Recent research, however, indicates that the ‘lead mare’ as such probably doesn’t exist and that in fact there is some form of distributed leadership in a herd. Often it will be the older, more senior horses who initiate a move and will be followed, and any horse over one year old can and will get the herd to move from time to time. Leadership seems to be more a process than a role in a horse herd too and our concept of the ‘lead mare’ is likely to have been more based on what we wanted to see than on what was there to see. Our theory of leadership in the end preceded the example and saw it to be as we believed it to be.

That’s one thing my horses have been teaching me: “what I believe is what I see.”  The nature of leadership, like the true nature of anything, is elusive, especially when we try to understand it with our brains. Working with the horses is one great way to explore what really shows up when we think we need to lead – and what that tells us about what we believe. So we can be aware where we act from, so that we may examine our experience more consciously against that belief and that we may be free to adjust or adapt, rather than unconsciously follow it.

I happen to also believe that my horses do a good job of teaching me how to better be part of a leadership process, how to blend following and leading, how to create a partnership of leading and following that’s both internal and external – and that’s my perspective, that’s what I currently believe about the nature of leadership.

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