Leadership Lessons: Can You Lead a Horse to Water?

3 min read | Susan Colantuono

Wild horses in the german muensterlandYou've probably heard the saying, "You can lead a horse to water, but you can't make it drink." In other words, a horse that's led to water will drink only if it's thirsty.

While we might be able to guilt a person who isn't thirsty into taking a drink, this saying does hold an important leadership lesson for women. It's this: as a leader we can clearly point someone in the direction of success, performance or achievement, but in the end, the person must be thirsty for success, performance or achievement or no action is taken.

There are 5 different engagement strategies that we can use to tickle a person's thirst for success (to learn more about our 5-C Engagement Strategies, pick up a copy of No Ceiling, No Walls), but regardless of which strategy we employ, our ability to tickle the thirst depends on a combination of words and leadership presence.

Leadership presence is comprised of many elements: appearance, dress, confidence, power-talk and non-verbal expression. Work with horses provides an opportunity to focus with laser precision on our non-verbal expression and our ability to moderate the power we radiate.

Lessons from a Master

I learned this lesson from Harry Whitney. Harry won't ever call himself a "horse whisperer," but he does see things from the horse's point of view and is fluent in the way of horses. Harry taught me how to prepare horses to be ridden.

One day I was working with a very nervous filly. I was using the exact same style that I had previously used with a very laid back young mare. Always one to coach, not direct, Harry's quiet comment was, "Susan, you certainly are projecting a lot of energy."

It took me a while to figure out what he meant and why the filly wasn't getting any more tractable. I realized that we always radiate a viscerally discernible presence. Mine was over-the-top for the nervous filly, but it had been at the right level for the laid-back mare. To succeed with the filly, I had to learn to "turn down" the presence I was projecting. I had to broaden my range so I could modulate it as needed.

I was lucky to be able to learn this through work with horses. Horses don't understand language, so it's all about presence. As Harry says, you ask with "as little as it takes, but all that it takes." I had to start with the smallest "ask" and then ratchet up my "ask" until I got the desired response. I learned to extend my range from a very energetic, commanding presence to a very calming, small presence -- and to do it all through non-verbal expression.

Adjusting our presence to the situation and our "ask" to each individual increases the likelihood that we get the behavior and outcomes we need from those we lead. There are times when our leadership presence has to be at full volume (high energy or commanding), times at low volume (non-threatening or calming) and other times in between. Many women leaders are comfortable at the "low volume" end of the range. Others operate always at the high end. Effectiveness comes in being able to modulate business presence over the full range.

So, can you modulate the presence you radiate? Can you change the language of your "ask?" Can you respond to differences in your listeners? Can you effectively reward an employee's "try." Can you lead a horse to water?

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