What A Problematic Horse Taught Me About Leadership

When I was nine, my parents divorced and my mother and I moved from the city to a tight-knit country village.

She went from being married to a high-brow University Professor to being the local publican’s wife. I went from attending a posh private college for girls to a country school with 50 kids. To say it was a massive culture shock for the both of us is an understatement.

In a touching attempt to ease my transition (or their guilt for the breakup) my parents bought me a horse. His name was Puzzle.

The problem with Puzzle was that no one could ride the little sucker.

Every time I jumped on his back, he would buck me off.   Actually, it was more like – every time ANYONE jumped on his back, he would buck them off.  My mother enlisted an ever increasingly impressive line up of equestrians and horse whisperers in a vain attempt to “fix” and “force” this pesky pony to do what horses are supposed to do.

As time dragged on and more “experts” were summoned to solve the issue of The-Horse-That-Would-Let-No-one-Ride Him, I began to spend time with him anyway.

Each afternoon after school, I’d scale the fence to his paddock and brush him, talk to him and pat him. I’d lead him around the backwaters of Apiti village. We’d just hang out. And as the summer days stretched out hazily, lazily, I came to know, understand and love this idiosyncratic pony.

As a nine year old city kid trying to acclimatise to country life, Puzzle the Horse was a good listener, a non-judgmental ear, a quiet counselor.

By spending time getting to know Puzzle, I came to realise what an amazing animal he was. This pony even had a wicked sense of humour! I now accepted that although my Puzzle may never let me jump on his back, he had compelling gifts to offer a lonely nine year old that far surpassed his lack of rideability.

Why am I telling you this story? And what’s the link between a problematic horse and leadership?

The next time one of your direct reports is not performing, could it be you are trying to ride a pony that isn’t meant to be ridden? Is it a case of attempting to fit a square peg into a round hole? Maybe their current job does not play to their strengths and they are in the wrong role, but in the right organisation?

Maybe what’s needed is a closer look at what they ARE good at. Maybe you haven’t yet discovered their unique gifts. Like the case of Puzzle, we can end up spending an inordinate amount of time and effort trying to get people to perform in a role they are not suited to. Or we toil and sweat trying to get them to do things that are necessary for the role – but that deep down, they just don’t want to do.

If we were to spend a bit more time discovering, understanding and focussing on their strengths and what sets them alight, it might offer a way forward. (I am surprised at how often leaders mumble vague answers, guess or admit they have no idea, when I ask, “what deeply, specifically motivates each individual you lead?”)

Before jumping head first into the often arduous, painful and expensive route of managing them out of the business altogether, spend some time contemplating the following:

What are the unique gifts this individual brings to our organisation?
When have I seen them “on fire” or “in flow”? When are they happy, engaged and performing?
What are they really good at AND enjoy doing? (If you can’t answer this in detail, keep looking).
What are the business needs, projects or existing roles that require these strengths?
Is their non performance a matter of ‘will’ or ‘skill’? In other words, is this a matter of motivation (or lack of) or is it because the role is requiring of them something they don’t know how to do?

Puzzle remained a puzzle until I stopped focusing on what was wrong with him and started to accept and value him for what he was. I could have sold him at the first hurdle. But I often consider what incredible gifts would have been lost, if I had taken that route.

1 Comment

  1. Somerset Marketing on May 27, 2016 at 5:56 am

    Enjoyed the horse story and the implicit analogy Suzi

    Had a couple of mid level employees once who were studious and dedicated but showed little flair or desire to be promoted. I was fortunate in that a couple of social occasions enabled me to ask what they did in their time outside the organisation. Turned out one of them almost single handedly ran a major amateur theatre group ranging from deciding the productions, auditioning the cast and promoting the plays ….and they always sold out and made money …and the other ” dabbled ” in doing up houses , often 4 a year with a dedicated crew of plumbers, electricians, roofers etc and aimed to net 15% per job which gave her an income about 10 times what we were paying her .

    Inspired me to look deeper into ALL my employees to discover these hidden nuggets which is the lesson I think you are promoting . A really valuable insight in most cases

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Suzi McAlpine

Suzi McAlpine is a Leadership Development Specialist and author of the award-winning leadership blog, The Leader’s Digest. She writes and teaches about accomplished leadership, what magic emerges when it’s present, and how to ignite better leadership in individuals, teams and organisations. Suzi has been a leader and senior executive herself, working alongside CEOs and executive teams in a variety of roles. Her experience has included being a head-hunter, an executive coach, and a practice leader for a division at the world’s largest HR consulting firm. Suzi provides a range of services as a Leadership Development Specialist, including executive coaching, leadership workshops and development programmes for CEOs, leadership teams and organisations throughout New Zealand.

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