Tag Archives: startups

Five leadership lessons from a horse

leader of the pack

What makes this stiletto-wearing city girl strap on boots and drive out to a barn in the burbs every week? Well, love. I married a man with a daughter who has a horse. I love my husband, I love my stepdaughter, and now I love this horse too.  He’s affectionate, wicked smart, and 1000 pounds (talking about the horse, here) so I thought I’d best start taking notes.  Here are some tips, from Caesar to me to you.

1) Be the kind of leader people want to follow

lovell profile pic

Heels are involved in this uniform

It turns out horses have an amazing BS detector, so my first lesson was be authentic. I wasted a lot of time in my early 20s (and beyond) trying to emulate others’ management styles that just didn’t fit with my own. As a young manager, I dabbled in micromanagement, and tried acting as buttoned-up as the suit-wearers in the surrounding cubicles, hiding my own humanity in the name of professionalism, attempting to seem “managerial.” These were passion-killing epic fails, for me and everyone around me. Thankfully since then I’ve rediscovered my own authentic style, and that compassion, confidence, and clarity go a long way (with horses, and people).

2) Don’t confuse dominance with leadership

Horses get this. Every herd has a dominant horse—generally kind of a jackass and a nuisance who bullies those around him into occasional submission. However, this horse isn’t the leader, as he doesn’t actually make the key decisions (like, where’s the best grass for lunch today). Deriving influence from referent authority (“do it now, because I’m the boss”) might seem to work once or twice, but that’s not the stuff of leadership, and your exhausted and annoyed team will head for the hills.  If you inspire others to follow (see #1), you’re a leader.

3) If they don’t get it, it’s probably your fault

As you can imagine, Caesar is a master of nonverbal communication, and when my elbow says canter before my words say trot, my boy’s gonna canter. I didn’t get the desired result, but that wasn’t his fault, it was mine. I communicated poorly.  If I had a dollar for all the CEOs who insisted that investors/customers/employees were stupid because they just didn’t understand their business/value proposition/directives, I’d have a pile of cash. And if I were a betting woman, I’d say that 9 times out of 10 it was because they didn’t clearly communicate their ideas.

4) Bravery isn’t being fearless, it’s having the courage to face your fears

Caesar is a ridiculously majestic and powerful animal. And he has some very palpable fears, including gusts of wind, tractors, and hospitals (mine include large dogs, clowns, and hospitals). So he was duly terrified when he had to go to the hospital last week for surgery, but didn’t flinch when the doctors and technicians poked and prodded him.  Just stood there like 1000 pounds of courage, facing his fears. I worry about leaders who describe themselves as fearless; fear is good, healthy, and must be embraced on the duly terrifying startup journey.  Similarly, vulnerability isn’t weakness.  It takes strength to be vulnerable in this crazy entrepreneurial life, and just life in general.  My favorite leaders show their humanity, vulnerability, and courage (shouts out to Rand Fishkin, Kate Matsudaira, Marc Barros and many many more).

caesar n me

Suzanne DeLyle, owner of Topline Stables, Caesar, and yours truly

5) Wait for it… you know it’s coming… here it is… get back in the saddle  

In addition to satisfying my “get back on the horse” cliché quota, I feel compelled to say I now truly understand that expression’s origin.  I’m new to this whole horse thing, but lessons were going well and I attempted to post the trot…it might not have been overly ambitious had Caesar been saddled properly, but I got dumped like my high school prom. No concussion (thanks, helmet, and butt) but pretty banged-up body and major blow to the self-esteem.  Though I’d made a mistake and took some physical and emotional punishment, I needed to restore Caesar’s faith and trust (again, he didn’t actually do anything wrong, see #3).  Leaders will make mistakes. If you don’t fail you’re not trying hard enough. Getting back in that saddle was the most painful leadership lesson on this list.  And if I were a betting woman, I’d say I’ll have to learn that one over and over again…but that I’ll most definitely enjoy the ride.