With sweat forming across her forehead and her feet sliding across the straw-covered boards of the barn, she pulled hard on the lead. The mare wouldn’t budge. The more she strained, the more resistant her horse became. Standing six feet from them, I became caught up in this metaphorical struggle that seemed hauntingly similar to standoffs in my own life as a parent and a professional. I waited, wondering what would happen next.
The girl let the lead go slack, only to jerk it hard and pull again. Her frustration was evident. In the ensuing minutes of pulling and yanking, the mare began to step backwards, easing its way out of the stall, and potentially into the crowd of fair-goers. Nearing panic, the girl turned and called out over her shoulder to a young man pitching hay two stalls away, “What do I do?” Her desperation was compelling, betraying a sense of urgency with the growing threat of losing control of her mare.
The man responded nonchalantly, “You know what to do.” He never looked up.
In the silent moments that followed, I ran scenarios through my mind, wondering what I would do if I were in her boots. What did he think she knew to do? Did she really know what he thought she knew? How was she going to get this under control?
What came next was inspiring. She took a breath, relaxed her stance, and, with the lead still in her hand, she let it go slack. She walked toward the horse, passing by its head and then turned. Facing the same direction as the horse and standing so close that they were separated only by a mere sliver of light, the girl reached up and stroked the horse’s neck while whispering towards its ear. In an instant the horse stepped forward into the stall.
I don’t know what the girl said. I don’t know what the mare heard. But I do know what I saw: patience, empathy, kindness, and confidence. In a word: leadership.
Leadership has little to do with who is holding the reins. Or who takes the corner office, has the leather chair, or sits at the head of the table. (And please know, I don’t say this lightly. Growing up on military bases where literally every aspect of our lives – where we lived, who we dined with, where we shopped — was determined by my father’s rank.)
Leadership is, instead, all about what we do when we find ourselves with the reins in our hand, or assigned the corner office. Actions define the leader; humility and service engage the team.
- Are we willing to drop the reins and walk alongside others?
- Are we willing to set aside our emotions and our need to be right?
- Are we willing to listen and change course when things aren’t working?
- Are we willing to ask for help?
- Are we willing to try something different?
- Are we willing to do the very thing that we ask of others?
Our willingness to stand shoulder to shoulder with those we lead, whispering sentiments of encouragement, may make all the difference not only in taking the next step, but also in defining the character of our leadership.
And, if you think the story about the mare was enlightening, wait ‘til you hear what I learned from the alpacas!