A company is a living being.
— Arie de Geus

Harvey* paused over his cup of coffee while we discussed some of the challenges happening within his company in the wake of a merger. ‘I’m going to take a risk here,’ he said. ‘It’s not the mechanics of this company that interest me. I could care less about the bottom line or all the strategies and equations; those will take care of themselves. What interests me is grace.’ What he meant was that meaning was more important to him than metrics. I smiled to myself knowing this is an organization and its leader on the brink of possible awakening.

What does an ‘awakened’ organization mean exactly? To define this, I must first refer to Arie de Geus’ quote at the top of this page (not to be confused with the sadly manipulative phrase, ‘companies are people’). De Geus, a Dutch business executive and former head of Shell Oil Company’s Strategic Planning Group, began looking at the longevity of companies. Surprised by their high mortality rate (a company’s average life span is around 40 – 50 years), he inquired into the reasons. He discerned that what lead to their demise was the idea that companies were things, instead of living entities, and treating them like things made them treat their people like things, and this lead to downfall for all concerned. What if, he questioned, companies were not machines built to serve economic interests, but were communities of human beings, and as such, were alive? And if we worked with them as living beings, would this not positively change how people were treated working inside them? And would this in turn positively change how companies wield influence over the world for the better?

We all know that an organism, such as a fish, is alive. As is the coral it lives amongst and the billions of tinier organisms that thrive around the school of fish amongst the coral. Would we not say, then, that the entire ecosystem is alive? Like this, a company is made of many people making a veritable ecosystem of creativity, possibility and learning. Even organizational lexicon points to a deeper meaning behind corporate life. The word ‘company’ comes from the word ‘companio’ who is someone you break bread with. The roots are the Latin words cum – ‘with’ and panis – ‘bread’. The words ‘incorporate’ and ‘corporation’ both come from the Latin root corpore – ‘body’. Hence the roots of these words imply living, thriving things — community, body and nourishment.

Continuing on this line of thought, individuals have great capacities for learning, growth, transformation and ultimately awakening. And when a person learns, grows, and even eventually awakens, his awakening serves a greater whole. He may become more joyful, centered, wise, compassionate or thoughtful. It would stand to reason that a company has the same potential — to grow, learn, transform and ultimately awaken. Safety, care, thriving, joy and serving the common good are all possibilities of such a company.

But awakening organizations need awakened leaders who first and foremost see their company as a living being, and as such participate in its transformation with skill, finesse and a good dose of courage. What are some of the qualities of awakened leadership? Working with horses for decades and spending time in their herds has revealed the necessity of unmistakable qualities of leadership that not only support the herd as a living system, but ensure its safety and its joy. These qualities are congruencepresenceclarity and justness.

Congruence — ‘Be who you are’ is the invitation here. Our culture teaches us to mask our inner reality with an outer façade making us chronically incongruent. But more importantly, it teaches us to separate from our true sense of things from moment to moment. Being congruent does not mean wearing your heart on your sleeve, or letting wild emotions explode onto others. What it means is cultivating an inner spaciousness and mercy that allows for all internal things to be as they are. If you are anxious, for example, instead of tightening up around the anxiety in an attempt to change it or ‘relax’ it, try just allowing it to be there, completely. Allow its presence within you just as you would any other weather pattern that moves across the sky. Some moments the ‘weather pattern’ is anxiety, other moments it is curiosity, or happiness, or sorrow. It is only our mind that labels them ‘right’ or ‘wrong’, ‘good’ or ‘bad’.

Try this experiment: the next time an uncomfortable feeling arises, just open yourself for a few moments to feel it fully. At first your mind may be very active around this unpleasant feeling — strategizing how to change it or fix it, or fix the situation that caused it. But stick with it, just softening your body around the feeling, and letting the feeling be there. Notice how, over time, your mind becomes quieter, and the feeling becomes simply a sensation. It may not be comfortable, but it is, after all, only a sensation. It has no more significance than that. When our inner reality is met with equanimity in this way, then our outer presence feels safer and more trustworthy to others, even if they have no idea why.

Horses (and, yes, people) read incongruence as a threat. Think of someone who tells you one thing, but does another, or someone who is really hurt at a meeting, but keeps denying their feelings. These moments don’t inspire trust. For horses, predators present as incongruent—pretending to be invisible while stalking. Congruence, though seemingly a very subtle quality, has enormous impact on those around you. As a leader, knowing the power of these invisibles is your greatest strength.

Presence — We’ve heard it a hundred times, ‘be here now’. But what does that actually mean? Being congruent is the first step. You can’t be fully present if you are at odds with your experience in any given moment. Then allow your mind, your actions, and your sense of being to arrive fully in the moment. Notice how you want to check your texts, or think about the next meeting, or ruminate over what happened this morning at home, and gently bring yourself back to now.

Being present also means to know that your presence, and the presence of others, count. During our Institute gatherings, we insist, if people must leave a meeting early, they not sneak out (for fear of interrupting the process), but instead make their departure known to everyone in the group. This acknowledges that each person in a circle matters, and so when one person leaves, it changes things. You matter, your presence matters, and when your body is in the chair, but your mind is elsewhere, it makes a difference.

Another ‘invisible’ tool, our presence transmits so much non-verbal information to others. I have learned this with the horses over and over again. If, for example, I am making a request to my horse, but I lack a certain confidence in myself, she will not respond. Or if I have some judgement of her, she will not respond. Our presence sends out a telegram to the world about who we are and what we stand for.

Clarity — Our requests to others and towards ourselves must be unambiguous. Taking the time to think carefully through our intention before important phone calls and meetings ensures our clarity translates into desired actions and outcomes. In this way we are fully aware of where our time is going, and we shepherd our conversations towards meeting those intentions. If we are not clear, then it is up to us to notice it — sometimes by how it is reflected in others around us (the outcomes of a meeting weren’t quite what you were looking for) — and then take responsibility for it. Congruence and presence help support us to gain more clarity, which in turn hone our intentions and translate into better outcomes.

Justness — Justness is defined as being honorable and fair in one’s dealings and actions. People often mistake kindness or niceness for justness, and deny their organization the strong backbone that justness implies. Being just can mean applying a very firm and uncompromising hand when it is needed. What informs justness is that sense that one’s organization is a living system, and as such one’s actions must serve the common good of all involved. This may not necessarily be experienced as ‘nice’ by one of your direct reports. Justness requires too that consequences are delivered in an unemotional, non-judgemental way (see more information about this in an earlier blog, The Four Phases of a Request).

Horses disrespect both niceness and unfairness. If I am nice to my horse when he steps rudely into my space he learns he can’t trust me because he disrespects my lack of authority. Likewise, if I unfairly deliver a request without sensitivity to where he is, he can’t trust me because he disrespects my aggression. Learning what justness is and how it is applied is a life long practice and varies situation to situation and person to person.

Cultivating the four qualities of congruence, presence, clarity and justness as a leader allows you to support and lift up new potentials in your organization so that it can transform into a force for positive change, both in the lives of everyone within it, and in its influence externally. Learning non-predatory approaches to leadership, thought the gentle guidance of horse-informed facilitation helps leaders learn in their bodies how to navigate towards these qualities.

*the name has been changed in this article.


Karen*, a sales manager at a large company, is starting to have that knot in her stomach. She’s asked a member of her team to come up with his projected sales report for the quarter, and he’s still not done so. Pressured to not come across as bitchy, she bends herself into non-threatening postures of politeness each time she reminds him that she needs his projections, but inside she is beginning to boil. She’s feeling blown off and disrespected. Finally, after her fifth request, she confronts him in a sales meeting and looses control—yelling, accusing and threatening.

Later, he tosses the report on her desk and walks away in silence. The other team-members are weary of her. Karen feels terrible and embarrassed. She can’t believe she lost control like that and in front of all of her direct reports, and at the same time, she felt ‘set up’ to do so by her team-member’s refusal to submit his work. She knew that she had let anger have the reins, but she also knew part of the fuel for the anger was that she was angry that she was angry. She began to feel powerless and despairing. This, she thought, is exactly why she hated managing and leading.

It doesn’t have to be like this. Learning how to make requests in a firm, fair and just manner, and inspire others to follow those requests is a skill that the horses have taught me over the years. Horses teach us a way of relationship that is not only authentic, but abides in the world between the two extremes of ‘nice’ and ‘violent’. That place is called ‘just’. And while I can’t bring a horse to you through the screen to show you how it is done, it is easily described. In discovering collaborative horsemanship, I learned about what some horse-people call ‘the four phases of a request’. And it goes like this:

Phase one — a subtle, quiet request. With horses, it looks something like a gesture, or a look, a feel, or sometimes just a thought. With people it is slightly different, but the same principle applies. In the case of Karen, it may be the first request for the projection report made to the entire team through a meeting or email. Or, it is the expectation of projection reports that are due on the first Monday of each quarter, as part of regular known protocol.

Phase two — is slightly ‘louder’ – not as in verbally loud, but ‘louder’ in clarity. It follows phase one, and only if phase one is not heard. Karen may take her team-member aside and, with eye contact, remind him of the report, and perhaps asking him some clarifying questions about his needs or challenges to see if anything needs to change in her expectations, or if some assistance is required. By now, if she had practiced the phases enough, Karen would be already strategizing what her phase three and four are going to be, so that she was not just reacting. Knowing her potential phases three and four also helps Karen to stay centered and calm, confident that one way or another she will have a means to receive her report.

Phase three — is slightly ‘louder’ still, and follows phase two, that followed phase one, and is only applied if phase two has not been heeded or ‘heard’. At this point Karen might have stated something succinctly and unemotionally such as, ‘On my table by 4 pm today, period.’ It may be followed by a warning of some kind of consequence or outcome as a result of the report not being handed in by 4 pm.

Phase four — is a ‘promise’. Unlike phases two and three, it is no longer just a ‘crescendo’ of a request, but is more a final word, a line that will not be crossed, and a consequence that is issued as warned in phase three. It is firm, clear and unwavering. But best of all, it is unemotional — free of judgement, blame, anger. This is, after all, just physics: a request was made, and was not yet followed, and as a result, there are consequences. And here’s the secret to phase four—there is no phase five. Four is final.

But I want to warn you about the importance of a correct phase four. Here is what they are not: emotional, judgemental, angry, threatening, intimidating, thrashing, controlling, mean, sarcastic, manipulative, inappropriate, or out of control. We have all been at the receiving end of such tactics, whether in childhood or adulthood. That is not a phase four, that is violence. And because of violence, many of us fear the phase four and therefore will not use it.

Phase four is: considered, powerful, clear, certain, serves the good of the whole, situational-appropriate, unemotional, nonjudgmental and final so that the particular issue (in the above case, the report) is dealt with once and for all.

It takes time to learn the art of a phase four, and they are different with every circumstance. This is why it is important to creatively plan ahead in every situation, so you are ready.

If you think about how you make requests, you might find yourself in one of these scenarios:  either you remain in phase one, and continually bend and bend and accomodate, until finally you, like Karen, blow up – going straight from phase one to a very emotional and stressful phase four! This style perpetuates the blow-up cycle, because it reinforces our fear of a phase four (‘See, being strong and clear is always scary and dramatic!’ ) and keeps us accommodating. Or perhaps you have an authoritarian approach, just going straight to a phase four. This approach makes people weary. Or, some of us move from phase one, to then a two, and then even a three, but because we resist a phase four, we’ll just hang out delivering phase two’s or three’s over and over and over. This is called nagging.

What makes these phases work? First of all, they are offered in succession, one after the other, allowing the recipient a chance to follow the request at each phase. They ‘crescendo’ in firm-ness, with clarity of the final consequence. And they require the one making the request to plan for each successive (clearer) phase, knowing there is a final phase, and not just some wild unfettered escalation on their part.

Ironically, people who blow up and lose control are those who dislike anger and feel disempowered by external events. The four phases help us regain a sense of control, thereby protecting us from reactive anger in two ways: by helping us put a plan on exactly how to escalate requests (protecting the one making the request from the perils of reaction mode), and by putting a lid (phase four) on the projected escalation.

Over time, the four phases allow us to trust our requests, trust how we make them, and trust others to follow them. We learn to make them without fearing we’ll lose it if requests aren’t followed, or just wallow in defeat. We become clearer, firmer and more just—on ourselves and with our staff. As the worry about anger or being manipulated diminishes, we become more effective and so does our team.

What can you expect over time? When working with horses, the four phases inspire them to increasingly follow requests with a simple phase one, and that’s all. They do this, not because they are intimidated, but because it is easier, quieter and more fun. When the phases are applied with consistency and clarity, and the phase four is applied unapologetically, unemotionally and without ambivalence, horses feel respected and in return, respect us. This is, after all, their language. What results is a partnership of quiet collaborative ease, with almost psychic response and precision. Imagine that with your team!

But here’s the secret, if a horse knows you really really don’t want to have a phase four, he’ll ignore you. Or, if all you have is violence and emotion in response to his defiance, he may be subdued, but he’ll never respect you. He has to respond in these ways, his survival depends upon it. If you are not clear enough to deliver a correct phase four, you have no right to lead that horse to safety, and his defiance is his way of making sure only the most clear, present and just earn leadership status.

It works the same way in organizations. Only the most clear, present and just deserve leadership positions. And we’ll be tested in numerous, often subconscious ways to see if we are clear enough. You can take defiance as a welcome and important test, and oblige by revealing your presence, justness and clarity.

Learning a non-predatory approach to leadership by implementing the four phases of a request teaches us the art of power-with, verses power-over. And this makes us worthy leaders.

* Names have been changed.