Jude and Emma are founders of a super fast-growing start-up somewhere up the M40, called The Leadership Whisperers. I sat next to Jude at a recent event on Leading with Heart and thought she was special. Now I know she is.
Jude is a woman with presence, fortitude, understanding, authenticity and kindness. And when you couple that with a 16-year senior leadership career in IBM and leadership coaching, it’s an undeniably powerful mix. You only have to see her in action for 5 minutes to know she’s utterly found her place in the world. And anyone who’s lucky enough to find themselves at these stable doors will benefit, often profoundly, from her natural aptitude and life experiences.
Yet, five years ago, Jude was terrified of horses. So she decided to try and overcome her fear and took lessons, where it turned out that her teacher was also an EAHAE (European Association of Horse Assisted Education). And so, for the purposes of keeping this story short for now, Jude had a light bulb moment and went headlong into several years of working her arse off. There were long days of fighting back tears of frustration and exhaustion in order to bring the business world the pretty exceptional ‘product’ she and Emma have refined today. Yet it’s not refined at all, it could never be. What the Leadership Whisperers do is send you headlong into your feelings, your truth, your skills as a leader and your authenticity as a human being.
I’d heard of equine therapy and know that animals can sense energy, health issues, even cancer. It’s an ability that we probably once had as human beings, but have long since forgotten, certainly in the West. It’s difficult to explain but most akin to how I’d describe telepathy or working with a healer who understands energy. But I don’t want to get too fluffy and risk scaring you off. Still, helping senior leaders through change and uncertainty with a stable full of horses, as a concept, is apparently akin to ‘marmite’, so the Jude and Emma tell us. Some HR professionals are inquisitive and drawn to something different and feel brave enough to suggest it. Others do a one-mile circuit to avoid it.
You see, these horses seem to understand us. Really well. Our energy fields, as humans, extend to about the end of our fingertips when we hold our arms open wide. A horse can sense your intentions and energy from the other side of a field. They understand pretty much everything we’re feeling. When you’re stressed or apprehensive, they know it. They react. They react very differently to other people who are calm. It’s almost unbelievable to watch. Jude explains by telling us that the horses naturally mirror our non-verbal communication. It’s the cleanest and most transparent feedback you’ll ever get.
What this experience offers is a chance to explore how our leadership skills play out. We may be in a paddock with our team and some horses, but what this does is play out as a mini enactment of how well (or badly) we’re performing, communicating and being as a team and as leaders in the ‘real world’, back in the office.
What I find rather fascinating is that when Jude and Emma get a group of graduate corporate trainees in, all light and full of enthusiasm, the horses love it. They are easy-going, good natured and frolicy (if that’s a word). Yet when a group of toughened, armoured MD’s, senior leaders and CEO’s walk in, with their impatience, armour, egos and expectations, the horses react very, very differently. They pace and they pant and they are restless and, well, mirroring what’s actually going on inside each of those people. We were a pretty calm, open group as it happens, but I could see examples of this throughout our day; how the same horse would react totally differently with two people within the space of a few moments. Indeed, they actually mirrored the energy that each person was giving off. Sometimes the reactions were dramatic. Other times, to our untrained eye, it wasn’t easy to work out, as an observer. But to Jude and Emma, it was very plain to see. The feedback from the horses was instant, followed by astute follow up from Jude and Emma, helping us to understand and navigate our way through an entirely new way of seeing ourselves.
It was humbling. Everyone in the arena could see and feel what was going on, so when you’re working as a team, there is no place to hide, which was hugely challenging, but something I loved.
I had many take aways from my day with the Leadership Whisperers, some of which I am still processing. So I plan to write more about these radical, yet subtle, post-horsey learnings over the coming months. Just so you know, I’m not writing this post because I’ve been asked to, or paid to. I’m writing about it because I had such a great time that I wanted to share it with you. One thing I do know. I’ll never stick my hand out and fretfully shove a few blades of grass under a horses’ nose again. That gesture now seems rather belittling and indignant. My day left me feeling that in many ways, horses have got it all worked out far better than we have.
You may like to read the first part of this series: Fresh Approaches to Leadership: Part I
By Justine Clement