Blind Leading the Blind: Leadership Skills from a Horse

September 9, 2009

I can’t emphasize more how amazing it has been to be a part of these Equine Sessions with this group of young guys for the past month! It is truly amazing to see the lessons that can be learned during these horse lead exercises. Yesterday was no different! During the session I had way too many thoughts and revelations to share, so I am going to try and sum up some of my main ideas. But this is going to be a long one!

Before we arrived the facilitators set up three identical obstacle courses, running parallel down the main part of the arena. As soon as we arrived and the guys saw this, they could tell they were in for a challenging session. They were split up into pairs and then given instructions: one person would be blind folded and was in charge of leading the horse through the obstacle course by its bridle, the other person of the pair, not blind folded, was responsible to lead the blind folded person through the obstacle course. The non-blind folded person was not allowed to touch the blind folded person or the horse; he had to merely given verbal instructions, or any other creative form of communication without physical contact with the blind person or the horse.

So, even if the horse was freaking out and pulling the poor blind folded person off the course, the leader was only allowed to give verbal instructions. The guys stepped right up to the challenge and were seriously engaged form the beginning. I began seeing different metaphors in the different aspects and learnings of the exercise. I saw:

The obstacle course as Life itself.

The blind folded person as an Individual just going through life.

The horse as Life’s Events.

And the person leading as Leadership and authority figures in our life.

It is actually incredible to be aware of these factors and see how they impact one another. For instance…

The Individual may feel that they have studied Life closely and know it, but while walking through it, Life’s Events can come and cause a disturbance, distracting, disorienting and causing chaos for the Individual.

If the Individual does not trust Leadership there are negative ramifications, whilst if the Leadership is insecure, or a bad communicator, the Individual going through Life is more vulnerable and in danger to Life’s Events.

To complicate matters, Life’s Events are totally out of the Individual and the Leadership’s control. Sometimes Life’s Events are wild, unruly, nibble at the Individual, and end up dragging the Individual through Life, banging him into the different obstacles, whilst sometimes Life’s Events are calm and manageable. For an onlooker it is obvious to see who is being dragged along by Life’s Events and who has control over them.

Observing these exercises and also knowing the participants well is also amazing because their strengths and weaknesses become so clear in the arena. For example,

The one young man, who is very strong willed and has control issues, was interesting to watch as Leadership and as the Individual. When he was the Individual he was also was “lucky enough” to get challenging Life Events (the large, unruly white horse), which made it even more difficult for him to trust Leadership. The Individual took off his blind fold at least six times during the course of Life. He was scared of Life’s Events but instead of listening to and trusting Leadership, he removed his blind fold for full control. But then when he switched to being Leadership, when the Individual was perceived to not be listening properly, or Life’s Events began to get challenging he would break the rules and grab hold of the Individual or Life’s Events, trying to physically manipulate them.

Or another young man, who has serious trust issues, sped through Life with his partner with no real problems when he was the Individual. In the feedback time when he was asked how they did it so quickly, his answer reflected his reliance on self and not on Leadership. The Individual said he had studied Life and had every obstacle pictured in his mind. He made sure he had control over Life’s Events and even though he was blind to what was to come, he trusted his imagination of what he had already studied of Life to successfully get him through. He said it’s all about studying it and knowing what is to come and mathematics. When asked what he would do in a situation where he was completely blind to Life, not having been able to get a glimpse of what is to come, he paused and hesitantly responded, “I guess I would have to trust the leader?”

Or the other pair, with one older, more secure individual, and a younger, more insecure individual. Funny enough, when the younger guy was the Individual and the older was Leadership, even though Leadership’s communication was not clear at all times, there was an obvious bond and complete trust from the Individual, and this got them successfully through Life with no hassles. But when the younger guy was Leadership, with not much experience in being authority, he apprehensively led the Individual, not giving clear directions, and appearing obviously worried and frazzled at times. At one point Life’s Events pulled the Individual off the path of Life and Leadership was in way over his head. He could not muster up the words to even help the Individual. Life’s Events ended up pulling the Individual very far off the path and knocked him into a pole.

This pair was later given a second chance to be in the same position. I think about times when I have put my trust in leadership and have been hurt by them. I am not quick to trust again. I also think of times when I have been in leadership and, do to things which were out of my hands, people that I was responsible for got hurt. It is equally not easy to want to step back up in leadership again. Sometimes life’s events just happen and we are not equipped to deal with them as leaders or followers. When the pair got a second chance they truly amazed me. The Individual put his trust back in Leadership and did not hold back. Leadership, even though he was inexperienced and had made a serious blunder which allowed the Individual to get injured, focused and stepped up to the challenge. The second time around they succeeded.

That exercise taught me a lot about what it takes to be a good leader but also what it takes to be a good follower. There has to be a certain amount of trust in authority, but authority has to have the best interests of the individuals in mind. Life’s events happen and are spontaneous, but it is possible to deal with them in a way in which we have control. I saw that in action when one of the guys got the white horse (who everyone had been struggling with) and he calmly, confidently, took control even though he was blind to the obstacles of Life and was being lead himself. Are we in control of life’s events or do they just drag us through life as victims of the circumstances. How trusting are we of those that are in authority over us? How trustworthy are we as leaders?

It was a powerfully revealing session for me!