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Decision Making in the Herd

How a leader influences others just by their presence



During a recent Leadership Intensive Workshop a participant asked if our horses all lived together in the same paddock. Horses are a herd animal and are happiest when they are in a group.

My answer was no. I am fortunate – we can provide each horse with their own paddock next to each other. This enables them to have their own space but allows them to communicate over the fence and have companionship.

There are two reasons I take this approach.

One is to reduce the likelihood of injuries being caused through kicking and biting each other. If you like the analogy, I am managing the WHS of my team.

But the second reason relate to leadership.

Horses naturally seek a leader. In a herd, or even in a pair, one horse is always the leader. In the wild, this is usually an older, experienced mare whose responsibility is to locate food and water sources and maintain order. This horse provides both positive and negative feedback to others in the herd. They look to her for behavioural cues, when to graze, when to be alert, when to run.

If we put our five horses together, the leader is Big Buddy (pictured). He is the one that decides who will eat first, who will get to go to the trough first, who will graze where in the paddock, when to run away or when to come forward. He keeps the other horses away from me, and comes to me on his own, driving the others away they get too close. If Big Buddy is around, the other horses look to him. They are so aware of him and his moods that they do not focus on me. I am not their leader, he is. All the horses’ behaviours are linked to those of the leader.

Let’s now consider the workplace.

How often have you been in a meeting and waited for the leader to set the tone… to speak first, to show agreement or disagreement? Then have you watched the rest of the room follow this example? Perhaps you have even modified your own responses to reflect or support your leader. No doubt you have seen others align their words and actions with the leader, even if they do not agree in their heart. And sometimes we may not even be aware of our self-modifying behaviours as our mirror neurons kick in.

A leader’s behaviour is being observed constantly by the team. The leader’s cues such as body language or words are interpreted and guide others behaviour. A leader impacts the team, either positively or negatively, just by their presence. By their behaviour. What they say and what they do.

So as if you are a leader, what can you do to reduce this impact? Obviously being in a different paddock is not the answer!

· Ask people for their opinions or ideas first, before providing yours.

· Consider – do you really need to attend that meeting? Can one of your team handle it on their own? Then ask for an update of the meeting outcomes and what was agreed.

· Be aware that you are being observed at all times. If you stay back late, your team will follow this example. If you express a negative opinion of a particular supplier, customer or product, your team is likely to adopt that view.

· Be aware that your body language is cuing the responses of your team. For example if you frown as they are they are sharing an idea, this may be interpreted as disapproval and they may shut down. Be mindful of the non-verbal cues you are giving out.

· Express that you value diversity of ideas and opinions – and mean it! Consider words like, “Carol, I know you have a different way of seeing things compared to me. What would you do in this situation?”

· Thank people for putting forward opinions that are different to yours. “Thanks for that, David. It is a new way of looking at the situation that I had not considered before”.

· Develop a workplace where there is a high level of trust. A place where people know they are safe expressing differences. The concept of psychological safety in the workplace is a hot topic and supported by the work of Simon Sinek (Leaders Eat Last).

It is important to remember that it is not about abdicating your responsibilities as a leader. It is about being aware of the impact you have, ensuring that your actions and words empower others.

Want to learn more about developing your own LeadershipEQ either through workshops or one on one coaching? Our innovative, hands on approach helps you develop a range of skills with the support of a horse or two. Visit www.leadershipeq.com.au or reach out to me for further information.

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