I’m fascinated with the concept of leadership. Some people believe that great leaders are born with the inherent skills and personality traits that predispose them to becoming effective leaders. Others say that leadership is a skill (or set of skills) that can be learned, and thus taught. Perhaps there’s some merit to both theories. But my horses have shown me there’s something much more important than either, and it’s simply this:
In order to become an effective leader, the individual must have a compelling REASON to lead.
I first observed this phenomenon about 15 years ago when financial difficulties led me to sell the mare who had been the clear “leader” in my herd of three. Lilith was a very effective leader (maybe one of those natural born leaders?) who always made her job look easy and effortless. So it was only after she was gone that I realized just how important her leadership role had been in my herd. Neither of my other two horses (Shoki and Puck) seemed to have Lilith’s natural inclinations toward leadership. In fact, when introduced to other horses at trail rides, clinics or visits to friends’ barns, both Shoki and Puck tended to fall low in the proverbial “pecking order”… and always seemed content to let other horses take the lead.
However, when Lilith left, suddenly my remaining herd of two found themselves feeling lost and vulnerable. But not for long. I remember marveling at how effectively Shoki soon stepped into the role of herd leader, not only offering Puck significant comfort at a time of distress and confusion but also exhibiting sometimes over-the-top protective tendencies whenever visiting horses and their owners came for play dates. This was a big change from his former attitude, and resulted in a few unexpected squirmishes with horses he had always gotten along with in the past.
Several years later when I bred Puck and she gave birth to her filly (Tempo), Shoki bonded closely with the gregarious youngster and quickly became her mentor and disciplinarian (often teaching lessons much more effectively even than her own mother!). For the next 10 years Shoki (who I had originally pegged as a horse with few natural leadership skills) remained steadfast in his commitment to be a good leader. And, both Puck and Tempo clearly saw him as such.
With Lilith’s departure, Shoki had found his reason to lead!
Recently I had the privilege of seeing this phenomenon play out again. This time with Tempo who was born into my herd and who – despite exhibiting obvious signs that she possessed some strong natural leadership inclinations – had never been able to overcome her “birth” spot as the “baby” of the herd.
A couple of months ago I decided to add a new horse to my herd. This was not a decision I took lightly, knowing how close-knit Shoki, Puck and Tempo have been, living together as a family unit now for 10 years. But, the new horse (Markus) had a long history of being very unconfident in herds (and, in fact his previous owner said he got beat up pretty much everywhere he lived). So, I figured that Shoki would not feel threatened in his leadership role by such an insecure horse… and I hoped the integration would go smoothly.
Well, the universe has a way of laughing at me whenever I think I have a handle on things! When I introduced Markus to my herd, a fascinating story unfolded. I started out by introducing Markus individually to each member of the herd. I did the introductions according to the established “resource-guarding pecking order”, which meant Shoki was first, Puck second and Tempo last. But, as the saying goes, Tempo may have been last but she most certainly was not least! It was obvious immediately that Markus and Tempo shared a special (and very mutual) love connection. Not only did Tempo clearly claim Markus as her chosen new pair-bond; he chose her back.
Unfortunately, Shoki did not approve of the love shenanigans and once the herd was let loose together he quickly intervened to reinforce his leadership position. But Tempo, who had never had the opportunity to welcome a new member into her herd before, simply wouldn’t take no for an answer. When Shoki couldn’t get Tempo to behave according to his wishes, he decided Markus needed to be ousted. For the next couple of weeks, whenever the horses were turned out together, Shoki would do his best to keep the newcomer isolated from “his” herd.
Initially, Tempo seemed to be at a loss over Shoki’s behavior and was clearly frustrated that he would not allow her new friend into the herd.For days and days she made ineffective pleas for Shoki (and Puck) to grant her permission to spend time with Markus. And, Markus too, made what attempts he could to seek comfort and companionship from Tempo. But unfortunately, the decision seemed out of their control because Shoki refused to budge on the issue.
After about two weeks of this daily struggle, something amazing happened. One day when Shoki started to make his typical power-play toward Markus, Tempo very intentionally stepped between them with a sense of authority I had never seen in her. (I had the privilege of watching this encounter from my kitchen window but I didn’t catch it in pictures.)I could tell immediately that something was different about Tempo. Her body posture said very clearly, “That’s enough. It’s time for you to leave him alone and stop keeping me from him”.
Shoki sensed the seriousness of Tempo’s intent and instantly recognized that his authority in the matter was being challenged. He wheeled around in order to use his powerful hindquarters to “reinforce” his position. But, this time Tempo did not back down. In fact, she spun around herself, with even more confidence than him, and then kicked out at Shoki with such authority it made ME gasp. Never had I seen Tempo even THINK about challenging Shoki in this way!
In the moment I thought to myself, “Oh my! I need to get out there and break them up before one of them gets seriously hurt.” But before the thought could even communicate action to my feet, I watched as Shoki humbly backed down. In that instant, the universe as we all knew it in my herd changed. Tempo had simultaneously shed her identity as the “baby” of the herd AND found her “voice” as a leader. Tempo’s deep desire to bond with her new friend, and to establish a different set of rules for herself in the herd, had caused her to reach deep inside and access the leadership skills (whether learned or inherent) that, until then, had remained mostly dormant.
Tempo had found HER compelling reason to lead!
It’s been three weeks now since this incredible transition occurred. The change has not been easy for any of them. Shoki actually colicked (became physically ill) about 10 minutes after the big standoff. He soon recovered but then several days later Tempo broke out in an inexplicable episode of hives that lasted about 10 days. Being in charge of complicated herd dynamics is stressful! And Puck, too, has struggled – both to figure out what all the change means for her personally and also to learn to relate to her daughter in an entirely new way. Yes, change is hard.
But, it’s also good. Thanks to Tempo, my expanded herd has found a new “normal” and everyone is living peacefully together again. Tempo is proving to be an exceptional leader, and Shoki is, once again, content. I think he is thankful that someone else stepped up to take responsibility for the integration of this new member into the herd!
As for me… I can’t help wondering: had it not been for Markus’ arrival would any of us (even Tempo herself?) ever have recognized her full leadership potential?
From now on whenever I have the privilege of meeting or interacting with a great leader, I’ll smile with the understanding that they, too, must have been motivated by a compelling reason to lead.
“If you think you can do a thing or think you can’t do a thing, you are right.”
Post script: After about two weeks of the herd dynamics remaining peaceful again, Tempo humbly (and very un-ceremoniously), returned to her “normal” place in the herd pecking order. The peace remained and, over time, Shoki and Markus have developed a very deep friendship themselves. I’ve come to understand that, within horse herds, whichever horse “sees” what needs to happen to restore balance and harmony, that horse will step up and take care of business. Horse herds truly are an amazing example of communal leadership!