The Secret To Great Culture – Remarkably It’s About Horses!


Spring Carnival time is upon us again. It’s all about horses in Victoria as we build up to Melbourne Cup day in a month’s time. And remarkably, I have learnt some strong leadership lessons from these fine creatures over the past few days.

On the final day of school holidays, I treated my 14-year-old and 12 year old to a surprise. I took them for a horse-riding lesson with a twist. A colleague and friend of mine does some fabulous work in this field and I was keen to learn more. A no brainer for my 12-year-old daughter Bec, she is horse mad! My son Cam, on the other hand, hadn’t had much to do with them.

It was a fascinating three hours of observation. In that time I learnt so much more about these two kids, who I thought I knew so well. And it got me thinking of the similarities of workplace culture. How does a leader learn lessons from a horse? Let me share.

The very first task was to choose a horse. Two horses in a paddock, two excited kids thinking they were going to ride them straight away. But no. They were instructed to focus on their horse, be curious and build a strong connection without words. Only when the horse ‘felt’ that connection did it approach them. Within a minute, my son’s horse walked straight over, much to the disappointment of my daughter.

You see, my daughter was almost overconfident, assuming the horse would just come to her. Based on her past experience alone, she didn’t give the first direction much effort. Easily done when an inexperienced leader relies on their position rather than focus on their relationship with the team. Leaders driven by ego will often influence the culture of ‘us’ vs. ‘them’. They create division.

Next came a quick lesson in building rapport. They spent some time matching and mirroring, building a sense of security. Trust is earned gradually, entering into the horse’s world and showing an interest in them. This took practice, it wasn’t easy. And the feedback came immediately when they were not in rapport. At times, the horse would be defiant and not move. At other times it played up and needed calming down.

How often does this play out in the workplace? People are just like these horses – they want to feel safe and secure. Initially they can be hesitant with a new leader, watching the team dynamics, getting a sense of the ‘vibe’ in a team or organisation. If a leader makes the effort to build rapport from the beginning, this phase can move quickly. A sense of ease comes about. Only then have you earned the right to lead.


Once they were able to lead the horses, Cam and Bec headed out from the comfort of the stables into the arena. That took it to a whole other level. The biggest challenge there was forgetting what they just spent the last hour and a half doing! Their focus shifted to what they could get (an opportunity to ride) and away from what they could give. Before riding them, they were instructed to lead their horses through obstacles. I almost laughed out loud to see the horse stubbornly remove to budge. And the reaction of these young ‘leaders’? Complete bewilderment.

It was a great lesson in focus. When the kids were in their heads, feelings of frustration were obvious. Why won’t the horse respond? And the flow on from that was a lack in confidence. This was reflected in their body language – head down, shoulders slumped. A look of “I give up” came across them. With their coach reminding them to return to basics, they eventually were able to move their horse.

One of the keys – look to where they want to go. Focus on the destination and feel certain within yourself. Great leaders are able to bring the team along on their vision for a compelling future. Even when they might not feel it, they are resembling certainty through their physiology and tone.

The outcome? They were able to ride the horse. That part of the session went only for about 10 minutes each. Ten blissful minutes of feeling a huge sense of pride and achievement for all the work put in beforehand.

Never underestimate the leader’s influence over culture. Or the lessons we can learn from these majestic animals.



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