Sitting across the table from Dr. Hoffman, I observed a very specific sense emerging in the space. It was a feeling of infinite possibility. I felt exceptional self-confidence and sparkle—not in him—in me. I felt, well, remarkable, as if I had super powers and could do anything I put my heart into. It then dawned on me that this was his gift—he saw, and therefore evoked, greatness in others.
In the wake of the last week’s New York Times article detailing the Russian theft of our democratic sovereignty, the SEC’s lawsuit against Elon Musk, and Kavanaugh’s hearing, it’s hard not to be especially mordant about leadership of any kind.
The public, across the entire political spectrum, is beginning to question and argue about the qualities that equate to leadership. Should a person with a dubious moral compass be selected to lead? Scratch the surface of almost any heated headline, and it is leadership that is ultimately in question. What is leadership? What qualifies good leadership? How do we know? What postures as so-called leadership is often just what grabs media attention. Additionally, its overuse as a generic term in place of words like management or administration has rendered it impotent. Many are jaded about the very word itself, and for good reason.
‘Years ago, Mrs. Bartlett, my third grade teacher, put a moratorium on the word nice in her classroom,’ writes Nick Turner, Professor of Organizational Behavior and Distinguished Chair in Leadership at the University of Calgary. ‘Mrs. Bartlett’s lesson that day was the importance of clear and precise language to say what we mean and to take responsibility for the words we use,’ he continues. ‘Thirty-five years later, I would like to apply the same moratorium on the word leadership — at least until we are willing to say what we mean by leadership, and take responsibility for doing so.’
The decline of a society could be measured, perhaps, not only by the increasing number of animals of the endangered species list, or the melting of icebergs, but by the increasing number of words that have become meaningless. What makes a word meaningless? Overuse, inaccurate use, abuse, misuse. Words like democracy, sacred, love, friend, beautiful, and awesome are examples of words that have gone to seed.
In his essay Politics and the English Language, George Orwell wrote that the decline of a language has political and economic causes. “It is not due simply to the bad influence of this or that individual writer,” he says. “But an effect can become a cause, reinforcing the original cause and producing the same effect in an intensified form, and so on indefinitely.” Meaningless words “do not point to any discoverable object, but are hardly even expected to do so by the reader,” he continues. “The word Fascism has now no meaning except in so far as it signifies ‘something not desirable’.”
The very mention of the word leadership can spike the nervous systems of many, and induce cynical eye rolling in others—symptoms of a word become meaningless. Following Orwell’s line of thought, this begs a question: what effect is the meaninglessness of leadership having on us as a society?
When I was a teenager, my stepfather had a book that he kept on the bookshelves of our family room. It was entitled Why Sons of Bitches Succeed and Nice Guys Fail in a Small Business. This is an example of the misuse of the definition of leadership pervasive in our culture. Many are taught that to lead you had to not care. Actually…to lead you had to be cold, hard, removed and calculating, dishonest…even a jerk.
Where did these twisted rules come from? Theories abound from military influences, to the patriarchy, to various social influences such as the Great Depression, both World Wars and the Industrial Revolution. Gen. George S. Patton became the first military leader officially tagged as being a jerk (and worse), by both his men and his superiors. By all accounts, this was well deserved. Patton was a brilliant tactician, but he could also be a prima donna, a martinet, and on occasion extremely abusive.
Does a leader have to be a jerk? If you just start checking off the leaders in the wake of Patton, one would think so. Steve Jobs, Michael Eisner, Larry Ellison, Martha Stewart, Meg Whitman, Sam Zell, Carly Fiorina, Bob Nardelli, “Chainsaw Al” Dunlap, Richard Fuld, Mark Hurd, Jeffrey Skilling. And in a class all his own is Donald Trump.
But maybe these folks merely reveal our collective confusion about leadership, and do not truly represent it.
“Most of the would-be masters of the universe who take Patton or Jobs as their personal models aren’t choosing assholism as a career expedient, they’re looking to justify their predilection for it,” aptly writes Geoffrey Nunberg in The Washington Post.
Yet we are fascinated by jerks. While lots of C-suites abound with good, kind, compassionate, dignified and masterful leaders, it’s the nasty ones we remember. “Year in and year out, candidates for the A-word made up about half of Barbara Walters’ list of Most Fascinating People,” continues Nunberg. “And the spectacle of people acting like jerks to one another has become a reliable business model for reality TV, talk radio and ‘news’.”
Given the allure and skew towards ‘not true leadership’, where do we go to find and learn real leadership? What oracle can save leadership from its extinction? How about nature…Biomimicry is an approach to innovation that seeks sustainable solutions to human challenges by emulating nature’s time-tested patterns and strategies.
Toby Herzlich is the Founder of Biomimicry for Social Innovation. Her organization applies nature’s 3.8 billion years of evolutionary success to leadership, social change, and organizational innovation. According to Herzlich and her colleagues, nature gives powerful and practical insights into leading our organizations so that they operate more like ecosystems. And I agree.
It just so happens that the oldest, most successful leadership system today is the horse herd. Fifty-five-million years of remarkable leadership makes horses the most successful mammal on earth. Perhaps we can look towards their model, to learn how to retrieve leadership from the brink.
Why have they thrived? There are several evolutionary reasons, but for the purposes of this article, let’s focus on one of them—their leadership culture.
Besides the basic survival needs of food, shelter and water, the herd is organized around five core pillars: safety, connection, peace, joy, and freedom. The leader, therefore, is chosen based on his or her ability to maintain these five pillars within the herd system, in care of the whole.
Counter to conventional folklore about herd leadership, horse bands are governed by the opposite of what seems to intrigue Barbara Walters. This servant leadership position is usually assumed by a mare, or a team of mares. In domestic settings, where there may be herds with few to no mares, leadership is sometimes assumed by a gelding and / or mare.
Remember too that the females take care of the young…in this case, the foals. So if you think about this for a moment, it makes sense that the mares wield the scepter. Because they know how to not only take care of the adult members of the band, but the babies too. This isn’t sexism here, it’s just true. So of course nature would design it that the leader would be the one who could best ensure the survival of its young, its very legacy.
Like our colorfully jerk leaders in the public arena, gladiator stallions have received a lot of attention because they are flamboyant and dramatic. Leadership qualities have been attributed to their dominant and brutish ways. But they are not the leaders of the herd. They have a specific role to play in specific circumstances, however it’s not in overseeing the daily governance. In fact, the lead mare or mares will see to it that a badly behaving stallion is exiled from the herd until he can participate inside the clan with good manners.
A similar scenario played out in our initial encounters with First Nations Peoples. Often we assumed the war chiefs were the tribal chieftains of their associated tribe, and engaged with them politically accordingly. We were wrong. Interesting how we associate war with leadership.
How exactly does a lead horse govern, and keep those five pillars intact? Through two superpowers: care and presence. Care is that genuine desire to attend to the needs of others. Synonymous with love, care is unconditional love with responsibility. And presence, is the ability to be wholly here in this present moment, in this limitless sense of totality here and now. Presence enables care to be acutely responsive to the moment, in each moment. Without presence, care can be inaccurate, or ill-timed. Without care, presence can remain abstract.
Through this elegant ecosystem of safety, peace, connection, joy and freedom—maintained by care and presence—a natural and dynamic democracy ensues. The other herd members are constantly, moment by moment, testing their leader’s ability—does she still care? Is she still present? If for some reason, due to illness, wounding or age, she should show up less than present, or not able to care, a new leader would take her place. But not with a clashing of hooves and gnashing of teeth. Instead, with an acceptance of giving and receiving care. Out of care for the outgoing leadership (who now needs care), and care for the whole herd, a new horse assumes authority.
Let’s pause here. Imagine—just for a moment—if we were to select our leaders based on these principles. Imagine if our schools, our government, our financial institutions, our Fortune 500s, selected leaders based on their ability to be caring and profoundly present, to serve safety, connection, peace, joy and freedom – for the whole.
What a different world it might be.
It’s not such a far reach. Take for example New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, who recently used her debut speech to the United Nations General Assembly to directly challenge the view of the world outlined by Trump in his speech there just a few days earlier in September. Accompanied by her three-month-old baby, she called for a different world order – one that puts “kindness” ahead of isolationism, rejection and racism. “We can use the environment to blame nameless, faceless ‘other’, to feed the sense of insecurity, to retreat into greater levels of isolationism. Or we can acknowledge the problems we have and seek to fix them,” she said.
A senior executive client of ours is currently amidst his own metamorphosis—transforming from a dominant, tough commander, to a powerfully present servant leader. Make no mistake…this is a journey that requires enormous integrity and courage. After one particularly poignant call, a penny dropped for him. ‘You know,’ he said in relief, ‘All these hard-nosed attributes I had…they were learned. I learned them from books, and other leaders, and business school. So I can unlearn it. But caring? Caring is something I’ve known how to do since I was just a small kid. Caring is something I just am!’
Yes, so this kind of caring leadership is not so elusive – endorsed by 55 million years of success. You don’t need to drag yourself through endless webinars or read a hundred best sellers on the subject (even if they existed). You need only, as poet Mary Oliver puts it, ‘let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.’ Care and presence is your intrinsic true nature. It’s simply just a matter of leaning in (to it).
Frédéric Pignon is a gifted horseman, artist and the original visionary behind the world-renowned equine spectacular Cavalia. I recently had the good fortune of learning from him during a clinic here in New Mexico. In poignant serendipity, his US tour was a last-minute solution to the French government’s continued cancellation of large events (including his) in response to terror attacks.
If you watch Frédéric on stage, you’ll see him amidst many fiery horses, freely expressing themselves alongside him in expertly choreographed musical unison—a breathtaking improvisational display of love, passion, reciprocity and trust in action. It is said that most men weep when beholding Frédéric and his equine team. To the audience eye, one might say these horses are masterfully trained.
But if you were to watch him as I did, in a more modest setting— peering through the bars of a dusty round-pen in a Northern New Mexico Indian reservation on an icy cold and windy November day—you would discover something more powerful:
He does not train horses. He inspires them.
Riveted to the edge of my seat for hours, I watched as Frédéric engaged in quiet communion with one humble backyard horse after another. There in the micro-moment between a horse’s ‘no’ and a true ‘yes’, my world gently and miraculously unraveled.
Frédéric and his wife, Magali Delgado, travel the world performing and leading horsemanship and dressage clinics. Magali dazzles audiences with her ability to perform high-level dressage moves without so much as a bridle. Together the duo invite humanity into an altogether different approach to relationship. Their philosophy towards horses is actually a way of life: love, respect and understanding, patience and trust as the basis of connection to all things.
As the hours passed, bundled against the elements in layers of coats and blankets, I began to hear not only some profoundly transformative lessons on optimal horsemanship, but on leading, living and relating in our human world.
With holidays nearing, and our work days intensifying in preparation, and as we immerse ourselves in family and friends, I thought to share these uncommon lessons with you as my seasonal offering.
I’ve distilled 21 for you below:
1. Do not dominate, but guide and inspire – loyalty, trust and co-creation can only truly come from a true ‘yes’ from the other. The key is to inspire the other to want to be their best selves, and to enjoy what you are inviting them into.
2. Remove fear and obligation from your lexicon – neither lead with it, nor be lead by it. Dignity for all parties is the only way to live.
3. Improvise rather than choreograph – think about your time with the other as a blank canvas on which you will both paint. Rather than plow ahead with your plans and agenda, be acutely present to the influences of the other, and co-create.
4. Connection is more valuable than obedience.
5. Take the time needed to build trust – the link between you and the other is fragile. It is built link by link, moment by moment. And creating trust takes time, slowness, and presence.
6. Do not let your dreams and ambitions eclipse your happiness in the moment. The only way to achieve your dreams and ambitions is to see the beauty in the reality of what you have in this moment.
7. Stop being a leader (or partner, wife, mother, father, husband, etc) – your concepts and ideas of what it means to be these things gets in the way of just truly being with others in the moment. It adds stress and tension, and trust is not built with stress and tension.
8. Sometimes let the other ‘win’ – when you listen to and honor the edges and comfort level of the other, you are actually winning too… you are winning their trust and confidence.
9. If the other disconnects, keep your connection with them alive anyway – resist the temptation to disconnect or ‘treat the other as they treat you’ when they disconnect. Someone has to rekindle the connection, and it may as well be you.
10. A task ‘well done’ by you or the other with tension or resentment is not a task well done. Re-assess tasks and accomplishments by how much ease, joy, freedom and happiness are within them.
11. Assist the other to be their best self, that is…more confident, self-contained and beautifully expressive.
12. Ninety-five percent of leadership and loving is your inner state, 5% is what you do or say –the other attunes to what we feel inside, the energy we contain. It doesn’t matter if you use the right tool, or do the ‘right’ thing, if your energy is unclear, or ambiguous or distorted, it will not work.
13. Be masterful with your inner state – be clear and precise with your internal state. Be deliberate about how that inner state is applied to the other. Don’t be sloppy.
14. Start with a mental picture – what ever you want to achieve, start with a clear mental picture. Your body, thoughts, and energy will follow and line up. And you will create from there.
15. It’s not necessary to ‘end on a good note’ – this adds more pressure and tension. The best ‘note’ is in listening to the other, and letting things stop there. The fact that you listened builds trust.
16. Boundaries are essential – your message to the other is always: ‘be free, be happy, we can be together in that, but there are rules to such engagement and one of them is you cannot harm me in your freedom’.
17. Celebrate small successes more often – everyone loves to know they were successful at something. Have an eye for all the small successes and recognize them warmly.
18. Listen to what the other needs – so when you encounter another, your first question to ask yourself is, ‘what do they need?’. When this is your first question, then your engagement with them is caring and safe. This liberates creativity.
19. Be humble and gracious – this is true empowerment. It doesn’t matter if you are speaking to an important world dignitary, or a homeless person on the street. Everyone deserves the highest regard.
20. Don’t be the best – just be the best human you can be. Sincerity of heart outweighs skill.
21. Forget about work / life differentiation – be a good human in all endeavors, your truest self, your most present self. Why would you be different in your work than in the rest of your life?
May we be closer to our kindest humanity this holiday season. May we listen more, speak less, inspire more and control less. May we be joyful. May we evoke joy in others.
When I was a child, adults and teachers seemed to agree on one thing: make kids afraid and they will perform better. My second grade teacher, Mrs. Baughman, hung a two-foot long wooden paddle on a hook near the chalkboard for her own easy access, and a stern warning for the rest of us.
Humiliation, threats, embarrassment, shaming and bullying…these ‘educational’ tactics laced the locker-lined halls, silently embedded into the brightly colored construction paper façade of a public elementary school.
One day I watched—incredulous—as Mrs. Baughman, grabbed a can of Lysol from the cupboard, and began to spray around a boy named Claude, in an act of utter frustration with his perpetual dreaminess. Claude was European, and vastly misunderstood. He dressed differently; his thick German accent sounded odd to us, and his hair matted together in a tussle atop his head. The class laughed nervously. My heart felt heavy. After that day, no one played with Claude at the playground. And the boys began to tease him.
We all wanted Mrs. Baughman to love us. We enjoyed her humor, her robust passion of multiplication tables, her strident opinions about race and class, and the way her thick southern drawl would fill the room with an irresistible authority. But we were also afraid of her. We never wanted to be the one at the end of another random disinfectant assault.
I remember her well. I remember how she looked, how her stern eyes peered over her red bifocals, her matching polyester pant suits with big gold buttons. I remember mostly how she made me feel. But I don’t remember a single lesson taught by Mrs. Baughman, except for maybe that when people are afraid, they don’t learn.
Later in my early twenties working for an oil and gas company, I found the same culture of fear-based leadership still existed. People were expendable, and motivated by the fear of failure, more than any kind of intrinsic reward. Things haven’t changed much. Just look around at all the sectors, public and private.
But there’s a sea-change happening on the front lines of leadership development and education that reveals there’s a much better way of doing things, and it’s guided by the latest findings in neuroscience.
The fields of neuro-psychology, neuro-plasticity and neuro-cardiology is giving us clues into how to create the optimal conditions for people to transform into exceptional, innovative and enthusiastic contributors. Bringing out the best in people is more a matter of brain function—and deliberately creating environments that support that functioning—than pressuring individuals to tow the proverbial line.
So rather than moral ideologies of right and wrong or good and bad, these evidence-based approaches are rooted in rigorous research into our nervous system, and how we can positively (or negatively) influence one another. In effect, empowering others is a scientific endeavor, rather than a motivational or inspirational one.
Why is this important? Because even in the most benign professional and educational environments, there still lurks a subtle but powerful assumption that outstanding productivity lies solely in will power, and commitment. And when people fall short, we tend to resort to the old conventional approach of fear, intimidation, scolding and manipulation.
So what are these optimal conditions that foster creativity, innovation, motivation, collaboration, trust, adventure, and loyalty? In a word – safety.
Safety is a mild and very much overlooked little word that is in fact a lion in the leadership development realm. When we first introduce this concept to participants in our workshops, people often look at us in confusion. ‘Safety?’ they query. ‘What do you mean by that?’ Some even roll their eyes…“Safety is for wusses,” some retort. Others assume we mean mere physical safety.
But true safety means to feel safe and secure in all aspects—spiritual, emotional, physical and psychological. And why is safety so essential? I’m going to deliberately oversimplify here for the purpose of illustration:
Our brains are made up of three distinct parts: the primitive reptilian brain, the newer mammalian brain, and the newest neo-mammalian brain. The reptilian brain, also known as the amygdala, is designed to keep us alive. It’s in charge of the fight-flight-freeze-appease response when we feel under threat. The mammalian brain is in charge of our emotions and feelings. And the neo-mammalian (or neo-cortex) is our ‘wise’ brain. It is the center of empathy, reason, compassion, wisdom, learning, innovation and intuition. In other words the mammalian brain is where all of our creative genius lies.
For our purposes, I am going to focus on the two brains at either end of the spectrum—the reptilian brain, and the neo-cortex.
Our reptilian brain is constantly scanning for, and activated by, four specific things:
- the unknown
- physical or emotional threat
- ‘shoulding’ on ourselves
- incongruence in our surroundings (things not really lining up or making sense)
As soon as that reptilian brain picks up any of these signals, it goes straight to work. The first thing it does is shut down most of the neo-cortex, so that all hands can be on deck for rapid-fire reaction. Unfortunately, the reptilian brain shoots first and asks questions later. Formed during our most primitive stage of evolution, its purpose was to keep us from being eaten by a pterodactyl, not to provide us with nuanced response to a grumpy salesperson. But to the reptilian brain, there is no difference. At all.
So, regardless of the signal—whether it be a stressful deadline, or a real tiger in your driveway— your reptilian brain for all practical purposes shuts down your other, more resourced, more creative brain. This is called an amygdala hijack. It literally hijacks your ability to respond mindfully.
Enter politics, the medical industrial complex, the 24-hour news cycle, social media, the military industrial complex, religion, environmental and economic stress, and corporate life in general, and now you have a recipe for chronic fear, anxiety and panic—a veritable reptilian totalitarian state. Yep, we are basically living in a wisdom-bereft environment every day of our lives. And frankly, as a result, we are collectively about to hurl ourselves over a cliff.
This begs the question—with so much anxiety in the air, does this create conditions that facilitate real change, innovation, and creativity? Hardly. Curiously though, the response to this reptilian mindset is more reptilian responses—create more rules, threaten with more bombs, tighten our belts, finger wag the poor productivity, and call out all the bad behavior.
Neuroscience says there is a better way. Create safety. When people feel safe the outcomes are many—collaboration, learning, excelling, inspiration, connection, peace, maturity, openness, responsiveness, ingenuity…just to name a few.
In our work at EQUUS, we talk about ‘connection before task’, in other words, there is no sense in trying to push towards a task or outcome, until an authentic connection between people is made first. When connection is primary, the tasks automatically transform into optimal actions and outcomes. So how do we create connection? By providing and creating safety.
When we look around at the carnage that is mounting in the name of right and wrong, and good and bad, holy and unholy, it becomes apparent that what we are confronting is not a political party, or another country, or that people are just selfish and ignorant. What we are confronting is a mindset. Fear, shame, mistrust…signaling a reptile is at work.
Given the challenges we are all facing, whether it is as global as climate change, or shifting to a more conscious culture at work, or something as personal as having a deeper and more meaningful connection to a partner, the invitation is the same: create safety first, and everything else will line up.
How to create safety for others? It’s nuanced, and so putting it in bullet point form feels a bit stilted, however our reptilian brains relax when things are simpler and more succinct, so here goes:
- Be succinct and clear in your communication – short, brief and to the point.
- Use a warm, calm and open tone of voice
- Listen, with openness and genuine curiosity
- Be curious
- Be present (and don’t multitask while engaging with someone)
- Use eye contact
- Use an open style of body language (no arms crossed, etc)
- When possible, meet in person (rather than engaging on the phone or email) so that you can practice the above when communicating.
- Be accountable – own your stuff, without excuses
- Be transparent
- Be vulnerable
- Stay away from good / bad, right / wrong mind states
- Share your feelings and thoughts with ‘I’ statements
- Be congruent – in other words, stop wearing a mask and be yourself
- Do not ‘should’ on others (or yourself)
- Work towards what you and others can do, rather than emphasizing what you and they cannot (or should not) do.
- Use levity
- Be kind
- Spend time in nature, or with animals
- Validate the other’s feelings
- Walk your talk
- Be appreciative
- Stay away from gossip and triangulation
- Allow for people to be themselves, respecting their values, opinions and beliefs
If you work towards cultivating the above skills and practices, you’ll start to notice something wonderful happen. Things will become easier, and events will begin to turn in the direction you’ve hoped for. Situations previously mired in the logjam of opinions and inertia will begin to clear.
When you create safety as a leader, you bring those around you to wisdom and collaboration, and you become the kind of 21st century leader this world could use.
“And now here is my secret, a very simple secret: It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.”
– Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, The Little Prince
He stood blandly in the arena, the hot July sun beating down on both of us. ‘Come on,’ I encouraged with my rope, trying to get a trot out of him. He just looked at me, listless, his head hanging low, his mane a tangle of knots, and refused to budge. Pete, a short and stocky trail horse, had spent his entire day—like every day before it—carrying tourists up and down the foothills of the Sangre de Cristos. It was a grueling and thankless career.
Now, at dinnertime, he was supposed to spend time with me in my efforts to explore the realm of pairing horses with clients to create breakthrough learning experiences. It was 2010, and the only horses I had available to me at the time were a rag tag crew of resort-owned hang-dog string horses, of various shapes, sizes and, well, dullness. I stood looking at Pete and sighed. ‘End of experiment,’ I thought to myself as I put him back in his paddock with the rest.
I drove home disheartened. How fair was my request that these horses be present and emotionally available for clients seeking insights and clarity? That night I called my mentor in Australia. ‘This is never going to work,’ I told her. ‘These horses are numb, and worse, they’re exhausted. They have a terrible life.’ She listened quietly. ‘Who am I to burden these animals with more requests?’ I continued, ‘I should find horses that are happy, healthy and spirited.’
‘Let me ask you something,’ she said, ‘When you had Pete in the arena, what thoughts did you have about him?’
I told her how I thought that Pete was probably the most tired of all the horses, because he was a favorite, and therefore went out on all the rides. I explained how he hung his head so low to the ground, and how he could barely swish the flies away. ‘His coat is fuzzy; he’s a mess,’ I said.
‘And what feeling, then, did you meet Pete with?’ she queried.
I paused. ‘Pity,’ I finally said, knowing where this was going.
‘And…,’ she said slowly, ‘…how do you think that felt to him, to be met with pity?’
‘And…,’ she continued, almost patronizingly, ‘what kind of impact do you imagine all of those thoughts and feelings had on him?’
She could have dropped the mic down right there and then. I had been called out. She was right. But what was the right way to meet Pete in the arena? Wasn’t it true? Wasn’t he exhausted and sad and downright bedraggled? Just one look at that scrappy herd of bony tired horses and anyone could tell they were miserable! My rational mind was spinning. Was my narrative just that—a narrative? Was my perception not only false, but creating a negative outcome for Pete?
‘Try this as an experiment,’ she encouraged. ‘Go there tomorrow, at the end of another hot working day for Pete. Get him out. But this time, refrain from any story about him at all.’ She warned, ‘Now, don’t do the opposite, don’t have “positive” thoughts, that’s just another overlay. Instead, just meet him with presence, with the humility of not-knowing, but the graciousness and respect of appreciating his presence too.’
The next evening, I pulled Pete out again, and walked him into the arena—this time, absent an apology for ruining his day. The rest of the herd looked on mildly, their sway-backed bodies a patchwork of browns and tans along the fence line. The cicadas screamed their midsummer song, betraying the heat still hanging in the air.
Pete stood quietly and waited. I got present, and looked at Pete without my usual internal condoling narrative. I took off his halter, and twirled my rope to request a trot. In a sudden flurry of dust, he exploded into a joyful, bucking sprint. He ran around the arena, tossing his long mane, sliding into a turn, a spin, and then galloped the other way.
I stood in the middle incredulous, my rope limp at my side. Pete continued bucking wildly, throwing his head in the air and snorting gleefully as he ran. The other string horses in the paddock nearby suddenly raised their heads in alert attention, ears pinned excitedly on Pete’s escapade. Then they too followed suit. Within moments, what first looked like a death camp, came alive in a flurry of manes, tails, snorts and hooves.
For several minutes I stood at the center of a jubilant horse hurricane, awestruck. And humbled. They slowly wound down to a trot, then quieted to a walk, and stopped, turned to me, their rib cages heaving with breath, their eyes gleaming, as if to say, ‘Who do you think we are now, sista?’
That day those ‘numbed out’ string horses taught me an essential lesson—my thoughts and feelings about others do in fact impact them, and shape outcomes. What I think may be care or concern for another, may in fact be my own arrogance parading around as compassion.
For several years, that wise string of rough-hewn horses became my first co-facilitators of awakening, and accompanied me inside companies like Amazon and REI, and alongside leaders on the front lines of their fields. And during those years, their coats got shinier, their eyes brighter. At the end of any long day up a mountainside, they happily entered the arena to accompany a client into self-inquiry.
The secret to transforming a weary deadbeat herd of horses into a lively and uncompromising force for change? I saw them as whole. Instead of seeing the sway backs and dull coats, I saw strength and wisdom. Instead of seeing empty eyes, I saw infinity.
Mystic and philosopher Joel Goldsmith says it this way, ‘The work [to heal another] is always within your own consciousness.’ He explains that we can never trust what seems apparent to our eyes, from our mind’s point of view, because it is shaped by our own inner filters. ‘Mind can only interpret Infinity “through a glass darkly”—meaning: mind deluded with the conceptions of good and evil, incorrectly interpret Reality.’
He says that how ‘healings’ take place, is not through seeing something as broken, and healing it, but by seeing wholeness, and thereby correcting our own false notion of ‘broken’. ‘God never made anything that needs to be healed,’ he says. ‘Therefore the external conditions [you see] that suggest such nonsense is the very deception of mind and needs only to be realized as the Nothingness it already is!’
So, the strange paradox here is that healing happens when we realize no healing needs to happen.
Clients sometimes ask how to best support a colleague or employee who may be having a hard time. Or they may wonder how to elicit more leadership from a team member who is dragging along. Often parents will want to know how best to support an adult child who is struggling with an illness, or a toxic relationship.
I often recount the Pete story. If we engage with someone believing our own narrative about their life, their circumstance, their skillsets, we limit their ability to move through that situation with strength and dignity.
Our rational mind will tell us that a horse whose coat is dull with his head is hanging low must be sad and bedraggled, but life is much more complex than that linear interpretation. Our logic may alert us to a friend’s toxic relationship, but we know not the larger wisdom-teaching that may be at work for that couple. Embedded into the Pete story is an invitation to reconsider the true meaning of compassion.
Many of us seek to be compassionate. But what does it really mean? Most of us would respond that compassion, like empathy, is a sympathetic way of understanding another, and being in their shoes. Yet, if we are all honest, there is also a filter of ‘sorry-ness’ for the other. We say we have compassion for someone who is having a hard time, or feel compassionate towards someone who wronged somebody. But we never say we feel compassion for someone who just won the lottery, or who was promoted to their dream position.
The modern sense of the word is a diluted substitute for it’s older, more original meaning. Compassion is made up of the prefix com, comes from an archaic version of the Latin preposition meaning with. So, compassion, then, means with passion. The word passion comes from the Latin root word, patior, which means to suffer.
However, deeper etymological research into the word suffer reveals something fascinating. According to studies, suffering did not imply negativity, unless of course the word was coupled with a negative feeling, ie, pain, hurt, sadness. The word suffering itself has far greater, deeper, more awareness-based applications.
It actually means to “allow to occur or continue, permit, tolerate, fail to prevent or suppress,” from Vulgar Latin sufferire, variant of Latin sufferre “to bear, undergo, endure, or carry.” In other words, suffering basically means ‘the ability to feel everything without suppression or limitation.’
It’s interesting that a culture that barely tolerates feeling anything, let alone anything difficult or challenging, has lost the true meaning of the word suffering. Mostly we equate suffering with negative connotations. But the true meaning of the word invites us to feel and experience the entirety of existence.
So, then, the real meaning of compassion is to feel all things with, experience all things with, another. Compassion does not mean to feel for another who is going through a hardship. The difference is essential.
I’m not implying that we need to meet each other with Pollyanna’s rose-colored glasses. Far from it. To have the courage to ‘feel all things with’ another is quite a calling. When we stand next to another, and have the capacity of heart to set aside our limiting narrative, and our knee jerk desire arrogantly problem solve for them, and instead just feel the pure rawness of life with them, then something else can happen.
This is truly ‘seeing one another through our hearts’.
As a recipient of well-meaning, but misaligned ‘compassion’ I can say that it does not feel good. In fact I find myself repelled, anxious, and sometimes even slightly antagonistic. Often I know I’m being met with another’s limiting belief about me because I feel suddenly claustrophobic or exhausted in their company.
In times of serious personal challenges, I discover that I inadvertently end up limiting my contact with folks who are good hearted and well meaning, but who are unable to identify and arrest their own projections about my situation. They have lots of well-meaning advice, or worse, they avoid certain topics altogether and just act like everything is normal.
My closest allies have mastered the art of just ‘being with’ me. I’m aware of their deliberate way of being with my experience, without the overlay of story, opinion or determination. There is a sense of fearlessness from them. They are neither afraid for me, or afraid of what might happen to me. It feels good and it feels safe. This is how it feels to be seen by another’s heart. It creates an environment for me that allows my wise-self to emerge.
The best thing we can do for anyone, regardless of their perceived circumstances, is create conditions for their wise-self to emerge. It is not for us to know what that wisdom is, or how it might appear. It is not for us to advise, pretend, imply or even imagine. Our job is to simply be with, and by doing so we see only wholeness.
It’s a deceptively simple, yet powerful way to lead and love. The sufficient act of simply being with another, and being with another’s experience, benefits not only them, but you.
Now finally you can quit worrying or controlling. Now you too can be liberated from limiting beliefs that keep your world small. Now you can stand at the center, arms down at your side in humility, and watch in awe the glorious galloping spectacle of everyone, liberated at last, from any idea of broken-ness.
(excerpted essay on wisdom for Kindred Magazine webinar, May 2015)
Perhaps the most unfortunate consequence of modern life is the loss of the instinctual wisdom-self. No where is this more evident, than in my hometown of Santa Fe, New Mexico where droves of pale and pasty tourists arrive each day during the summer months to bear the dust and heat, and peer reticently into things more ancient.
Known for its Anasazi origins, Santa Fe is surrounded by Indigenous communities with names that echo ancestral embrace—names like Puyé, Tesuque, Taos, Ohkay Owingeh, Pojoaque and Cochiti.
Most visitors remain outside these communities, preferring the less confronting safety of Santa Fe’s new synthetic side — the margarita-drenched bars, the shops with faux Indian crafts, and the Anglo-cowboy musicians. Those more curious, arming themselves cameras, hats, maps and sunscreen, load into tour buses and rental cars and venture up canyons and washboard back roads to behold what they don’t even know they have forgotten—the taproot into wisdom’s wellspring, our collective human legacy.
It is here, in these pueblo communities, that their members dance themselves back into mountain spirits, into bear, deer and buffalo. They dance themselves back into their ancestral lineage—two legged, four-legged, and winged.
Standing for hours, arms folded, eyes behind sunglasses, the outsiders watch the corn dancers, the buffalo and deer dancers. They hear the jingle of ankle bells, the beat of the drums, and feet pounding the dusty earth, calling to spirits, announcing their place on the common ground of this earth. There is, among the outsiders, at best a mild interest, at worst a kind of unnamable malaise and ennui, a sense that something is missing for us as modern people. But what it is, we cannot say.
While the dancers in front of them them call out to those they remember, drum to the stories still alive in their bloodstreams, honor the wisdom gleaned through centuries of tradition, the outsiders are left with only forgetfulness.
We are wisdom-starved and have forgotten our way back in. We find substitutes instead—productivity, efficiency, data and metrics. The twenty first century is abundant with ways to access such information. At the touch of a screen we can know the stocks, the weather, the trends, the timing of our flight, our optimal sleep, and the best most efficient route through Chicago during traffic.
What is wisdom and how does one cultivate it? It has been defined as the ability to think and act using knowledge, experience, understanding, intuition, common sense and insight. Wisdom is a disposition to find the truth coupled with an optimum judgment as to what actions should be taken in order to deliver the optimal outcome. What makes wisdom elusive are certain elements within that definition such as insight, truth and intuition.
In preparing to write this essay, I was overcome with uncharacteristic procrastination. Why was I so resistant? I realized it was because the subject matter intimidated me on some level.
What I realized is that the very word implies some kind of authority, or dominion over. And in my striving for wisdom in my own life, I’ve felt anything but. In fact, contrary to external impressions of what wisdom must look and feel like, my experience is that wisdom feels extremely vulnerable, unclear, and at times lonely.
So the very conjuring of the topic, and how I might write about it, and invite you the reader to explore it with me, placed me in a state of uncomfortable unknowing. The place, in fact, where wisdom is born. So let’s start there — in that dark, murky and mysterious place of the unknown.
Knowledge, in our culture, is valued over not-knowing. And even though the more obscure, and lets say esoteric, ways of decision-making elbowed their way into blockbuster business books with titles such as Trust Your Gut and Predictably Irrational, big data soon eclipsed the fad. ‘The gut is dead,’ announced a recent New York Times article on data optimization, ‘Long live data.’
Data is a way we can be certain, and when questioned, be backed up by reams of facts and figures. Data unites us, in an odd, cold kind of way, in the same way scientists might hover together over a petri dish. And to that end, it keeps us from feeling alone. Who’s to argue with the data?
In, 2007, when Barack Obama first visited Google’s headquarters as a candidate, he announced himself as less a torchbearer than a data connoisseur. “I am a big believer in reason and facts and evidence and science and feedback,” he said. But I wonder if Nelson Mandela or Martin Luther King or Aung San Suu Kyi were data connoisseurs, would they have been as effective, inspired and inspiring?
There’s a crack in the data trance and it has to do with things innately living, the un-measurables. How does one, for example measure kindness? Delight? Joy? Grief? Kindness? Trust? Depth and meaning?
Enter leadership (in our own lives or inside an organization)—where the hubris of knowingness and certainty trips right over the extended foot of wisdom herself. I remember landing hard, face-planted in my own theories, facts, formulas and ideals. Leadership brings us right to the bone marrow of creativity and problem solving, forged through intuition, presence, sensing future possibilities and awareness—in effect befriending the unknown, the seat of wisdom.
Paradoxically, leadership is where we most want knowledge, formulas and models, and resist less than certainty. A simple search for leadership books on Amazon reveals over 133,000 unique titles. We want the data. We want formulas that will guarantee success. And while being informed, skilled and knowledgeable is a commendable and necessary undertaking as a leader, knowledge without insight and intuition leaves us strident and righteous at worst, and impotent at best.
So where along the way of this tumultuous voyage do we find our resources for wisdom-making? And how, if not backed by data, will we know it’s the real deal? What if we make a mistake? What if something gets broken along the way? What if what is wise in one moment, proves to be folly the next?
Wisdom requires we embark on the archetypal hero’s journey.
The First Step: Culture as a Trance
All heroes’ journeys begin with crossing a threshold. We have to leave one world and enter another. That threshold requires us to walk out of our current culture. To understand why we must cross that threshold, and look back at what we call ‘culture’, it’s important to understand what culture is, and why, to gain wisdom we have to begin to orient ourselves outside of it—to be in it but not of it.
Joseph Chilton Pearce describes culture in his book Biology of Transcendence. “Culture is a body of knowledge concerning learned survival strategies that are passed on to our young through teaching and modeling,” he writes. “It becomes the living repository of our species’ survival ideation and is at the root of every issue of survival. Culture, then, is a mutually shared anxiety state, a powerful catalyst of thought that converts all events into its own nature.”
While at its best, culture includes the highest achievements of humankind — art, music, poety. But at it’s worst, it breeds war, despotism and tyranny, as seen when certain cultures clash. Culture is the water we swim in and cannot see. When not seen for what it is, culture becomes a highly influential force in our choices and decision-making. Many imagine themselves to be free thinkers, yet their mindset is still confined within their cultural constructs.
‘The world is created of separate unrelated forces’, ‘vulnerability is weakness’, ‘success can be measured’, ‘time is money’, ‘emotions are bad’, and ‘faster is better’—are examples of cultural assumptions that wield enormous influence over our lives, and our organization’s lives, when unexamined.
Culture is a fundamental deviancy of intellect from intelligence (or wisdom), because of its massively unnatural, arbitrary and illogical nature. It values data and metrics over everything else. It domesticates us from intuitive vibrant beings, to domesticated dull-eyed beasts of burden.
Clarissa Pinkola Estés provides the perfect recipe for such wisdom-depriving domesticity:
- Take an original.
- Domesticate her early, preferably before speech or locomotion.
- Over-socialize her in the extreme.
- Cause a famine for her wild nature.
- Isolate her from the sufferings and freedoms of others so she has nothing to compare her life with.
- Teach her only one point of view.
- Let her be needy (or dry or cold) and let all see it , yet none tell her.
- Let her be split off from her natural body, thereby removing her from relationship with this being.
- Cut her loose in an environ where she can over-kill on things previously denied her, things both exciting and dangerous.
- Give her friends who are also famished and encourage her to be intemperate.
- Let her injured instincts for prejudice and protection continue without repair.
- Because of her excesses (not enough food, too much food, not enough sleep, too much sleep, etc), let Death insinuate itself close by.
- Let her struggle with “good girl” persona restoration and succeed at it, but only from time to time.
- Then, and finally, let her have a frantic involvement in psychologically or physiologically addictive excesses that are deadening in and of themselves or through misuse (alcohol, sex, rage, compliance, power, etc.).
- Now she is captured.
(Reverse the process, and she will learn to be free.).
So, to invite wisdom into your life, requires going feral. The word feral derives from Latin fer meaning ‘wild beast’. In common usage, a feral creature is one who was once wild, domesticated, and then reverted back to a natural or untamed state. Wisdom resides in those natural and untamed states. It requires you to constantly cross that threshold, into that ‘crack where the light gets in’, and look back to see culture for what it is—nothing more than a mental creation, held together by tape and string. Only then can you be free to feel, access and participate in a hidden language as ancient as the stars, whispered between the lines in every moment.
We cannot, and should not, throw culture away. We have to live wisely and freely within it, while releasing its stronghold on our beliefs and values.
The Ecology of Body, Community and Spirit
Once we wake up to culture, and its unnecessary grasp, then we are open to listening to the ways wisdom yearns to take a foothold in our lives. To do this, we must befriend a trinity of forces…our bodies, our communities and spirit. Together they create a potent ecology that mutually supports, nurtures, informs and protects.
Through this three-way support system, we can set up for ourselves a perpetual means to cultivate wisdom.
The body holds, through its DNA, an ancient remembering and intuition informed by all who came before us, our ancestors and the ways they walked this earth. Each cell holds a wisdom way of knowing forged through millennia. That is why the drum beats in Indigenous ceremony around the world, so as to wake up the body through a vibrational resonance that each cell carries.
It is interesting to note that most religions, theologies and cultures vilify, objectify or mechanize the human body. “Our body is the horse our head rides around on,” writes Linda Kohanov in The Tao of Equus in her calling to refer to our bodies as a living wisdom-system, available to inform us in every moment. We treat our bodies like beasts of burden, or worse, like machines. We dull our emotions; we avoid the mess of sweat and blood; we place shame over our sexuality.
“Our culture fears all natural processes: birthing, dying, healing, living,” writes Christiane Northrup in Women’s Bodies, Women’s Wisdom. “Because our culture worships science and believes that it is ‘objective,’ we think that everything labeled ‘scientific’ must be true. But science as it is currently practiced is a cultural construct rife with all the biases of the culture in general.” One of those biases is against the body and all that it feels and senses.
“Ultimately,” she continues, “I’ve found it enormously empowering to realize that no scientific study can explain exactly how and why my own particular body acts the way it does. Only our connection with our own inner guidance and our emotions is reliable in the end. That is because we each comprise a multitude of processes that have never existed before and never will again.”
She goes on to say that our entire society “functions in ways that keep us out of touch with what we know and feel.”
In this societal view, we tend to think of our internal organs as refined machines that do a particular job. The heart pumps blood. The stomach digests food. The brain thinks. However our amazing bodies are an elegant sensing, intuiting, mystery-knowing organism. A relatively new field of neuroscience called ‘neurocardiology’ and ‘neurogastroenterology’ uncovers the actual brain-functioning of the heart and gut. Both have their own independent nervous system.
Back in the 1960s, research conducted by John and Beatrice Lacey—pioneers in the field of psychophysiology—showed that the heart has its own reasoning that is not determined by directives from the brain. Subsequent investigations revealed an actual pathway and mechanism allowing the heart to send influential messages to the brain. Neurocardiology research led to the development of the concept of the “heart brain” in 1991.
The heart at least 40,000 neurons, as many as are found in various subcortical centers in the brain. The heart and brain have a two-way communication and yet, between the two, it is the heart that has final influence over the brain and not, surprisingly, the other way around. The heart is actually a governing system of the body and brain function!
The stomach also fires off signals to the brain via its own extensive network of neurons. According to Michael Gershon, chairman of the Department of Anatomy and Cell Biology at New York–Presbyterian Hospital/Columbia University Medical Center, there are 100 million neurons in this “second brain.” This arsenal far outnumbers the neuron supply in the spinal cord or the rest of the nervous system outside of the brain. So the stomach has plenty to tell the brain as well. Research shows that about 90% of the fibers in the vagus nerve—the main nerve for the gut—carry information from the gut to the brain.
Since the body—the part below the neck—has dominion over our discernment, attitudes, actions and decision making, it is time we start putting our presence and attention there. Listening to what those actual physical places in your body are ‘saying’ befriends how wisdom speaks to you.
Joseph Campbell’s famous line ‘follow your bliss’ might better comprehended in a slightly less dramatic, more practical tone. ‘Go with what feels right’ might feel more graspable. It is an essential navigation tool moment to moment.
Invariably when I work with men and women to help them reclaim their sovereignty through their bodies’ knowing, someone always says, ‘but what if I’m wrong?’ It’s a worthy question. Fear of doing something wrong gets at the root of one of our greatest fears—doing something wrong, and because of it, I will be abandoned.
But consider for a moment, what if your body, and all of its legacy of wisdom, is trustworthy? We are told we are broken, damaged. That we were raised with attachment deficiencies, and therefore we cannot trust ourselves. And so we cling to data, formulas, cultural norms. But which would you rather trust, an elegantly synchronized anciently informed living cellular system, or a historically created fear-based mental construct?
Indeed, living from authentic wisdom instead of culturally accepted formulas, does require a radical vulnerability.
Here’s where community comes in. And when I say community, I don’t mean those caught in the cultural trance, who would only encourage you to ‘stay safe’, or ‘not rock the boat’. I mean a carefully cultivated group of people that you have created who are, like you, aspiring to walk through that cultural crack and claim a wisdom-informed life.
There’s a certain freedom with letting go of constructs. How free are we within it? How must space is there to truly be ourselves? To what extent can we play? Wisdom requires listening with both inwardly and outwardly directed ears that listen not for just any whim or urge, but for our deepest, highest, most soulful desires. People who really know us, our community, know those desires, and can reflect back to us if we have strayed off track.
Good friends cheer on our authentic, bold and wise selves, and encourage us to push past our comfort levels and explore new ground, but will be there with a raised eyebrow if we’ve hit some strange extreme.
In the 90s I spent a good while with an old Indian sage. He used to say it was important to ‘surround oneself with good company.’ He meant exactly this.
But even a great community has its imperfections. That’s where the third part of the wisdom ecology comes in.
Whether you call it God, Goddess, the universe, consciousness, life-force, mystery, higher power, or soul, it doesn’t matter. Something’s there, and that something is in concert, every moment, with you, as you. It abides in places that require conscious dedicated effort and discipline to access. And like any muscle, your spirit muscle has to be worked, and tended to, on a regular basis in order to strengthen its voice inside you.
This tending-to is called devotion.
Meditation, journaling, art, time in nature, solitude, prayer, poetry, dancing and music are all devotional practices.
You don’t need lots of time to have devotional practices. Five minutes of meditation, ten minutes of journaling, pausing after a phone call to drink in the sound of the birds—all of these moments allow you to hear a more subtle call.
Wisdom as Liberation
If we are going to create a better world for ourselves and for our children, we have to take that leap into the unknown, away from efficiency, productivity, proof and data. We have to be willing to tap into that source of wisdom available in our bodies, in mature perceptive enlightened communities, and through practices that put us in touch with the mystery.
Wisdom is available to each and every one of us. It is our birthright. It is our imperative if we are going to survive. It is there, every minute, waiting for you patiently, waiting to be born through you. The ways in are numerous and, like all things mysterious, have no formula. So just start, start anywhere.
Dare to be different. Dare to follow your gut and your heart. Expect to be challenged and confronted. Expect for there to be onlookers, arms folded, their eyes behind sunglasses. But remember, just like the deer dancers of Ohkay Owingeh, all you need to do is listen.
Women Who Run with the Wolves, by Clarissa Pinkola Estés
The Biology of Transcendence, by Joseph Chilton Pearce
The Heartmath Solution, by Doc Childre
The Awakened Heart, by Gerald May
Women’s Bodies, Women’s Wisdom, by Christiane Northrup
I have a folding plastic chair that I keep near the horse paddock, home to a small family of six horses. Many times a week, I hoist the chair over the railing, unfold it in the middle of the enclosure and just sit. It’s the perfect way to not only ‘share territory’ with my equine companions (a deceptively simple but potent training technique), but to observe their behaviors.
Sometimes things are tangibly still, like sitting inside a Tibetan monastery. Sometimes, things are moving—one horse pushing another with silent subtle gestures, which leads to the movement of others—a sea of to and fro. At other times, things are playful and robust, with dust flying and giant bodies tumbling and arching. Sit around and watch the horses long enough, and you notice a deliberate regularity to their behavior that serves a common purpose of safety, peace, joy and success.
The horse herd is a 40-million-year-old system that not only succeeds, it thrives. This endurance defies the conventional definition of ‘sustainability’ and invites us to learn something from these powerful, wise and sensitive animals.
Allegorical use of horses as a window into the management of our own social organizations may seem at best romantic, and at worst a cheap stretch. We are not animals, we tell ourselves, and our brains function differently, and besides, horses can’t balance a budget. But this thinking not only over estimates our superiority, it underestimates the intelligence of nature. And, in fact, as mammals, our brains are hardwired for the same need for safety and success as the horse. It is our nature-deficient culture that robs us of true insight, robbing us of wisdom that could prevent professional and organizational demise.
According to Arie de Gaus former executive with Royal Dutch Shell and author of The Living Company: Habits for Survival in a Turbulent Business Environment, the average life expectancy of a multinational corporation—Fortune 500 or its equivalent—is only between 40 and 50 years. And the people working inside these organizations fare even worse. Top-level executives increasingly experience depression, anxiety, burnout and breakdown. Estimates are that over 50% of executives have experienced depression, and rates are estimated higher for those in top leadership positions. But statistics for professionals are nearly impossible to come by due to the stigma surrounding the topic.
Our culture defines a limited way of leading and being in organizations. With its dominant, hierarchal, hard-fisted, do-more-with-less, might-means-right world view, our lens through which we imagine a successful organization is distorted. And without clear seeing, we see no way out except through prescription medications. Such distortion dictates historical accounts, scientific assumptions and education, and hence perpetuates itself. So when we look to the horse for wisdom, we realize that it even cloaks the truth behind true herd behavior. We are told, for example, that a herd is governed by a roguish stallion, who runs his ‘harem’ of mares across hill and dale (yes, ‘harem’ was the actual word of choice used to describe the herd in an equine behavioral science book published in 1952).
But peer into the horse kingdom with clear eyes, free from the mythical cultural overlay, and you will discover that something quite different is happening. Herds operate in what is referred to as a ‘moveable hierarchy’, that is, that the leadership shifts and moves depending upon the need of the herd. Often it is a mare, or a team of mares who govern the herd, and a stallion (or gelding in a domestic herd) might also share this position with the mare(s). The mares determine the ‘right place’ for each member of the herd based on each individuals temperaments, gifts and weaknesses, and they are responsible also for disciplining those who behave in bullying or anti-social ways. Contrary to folktale, the herd is not there to serve and bow to the dominant’s whim simply because he is ‘boss’. Instead leadership’s goal is to serve the good of the whole. It’s premise – care, love and safety.
Terms like ‘boss’, ‘pecking order’, ‘survival-of-the-fittest’, to describe herd dynamics, obscure the profoundly nurturing and relational nature of this arrangement. The immense power of the herd is accessed not through what we would conventionally coin as ‘strength’, ie, toughness, might and ferocity, but instead through its sensitivity—empathy, listening and quiet presence. Imagine if, as children, we were told the truth about the herd, how that might have differently informed our sense of true power.
How does it all work, and how can it work in an organization? In order to liberate power, the herd has some very specific emotional and psychological needs. The needs are interdependent, and when applied to organizational dynamics, liberate all kinds of capital not only for the organization, but for each member. The needs are: congruence, sense of personal space (a right to be here), leadership, relationship, and place (belonging).
Congruence: Non-predatory animals are acutely sensitive to truth telling. Their lives depend on it. A mountain lion lurking in the bushes, wanting to pounce on the herd, registers to them as ‘incongruent’. He is pretending he is not there. He is aiming to be invisible and unthreatening, yet aiming to eat a horse. To survive, horses must have such a keen sense of their surroundings. They can feel a predator 500 yards away, AND feel that predator’s intentions. One has to appreciate this capacity for extremely subtle nuances of sensitivity. If they only felt the predator’s presence, and were not be able to discern his intention, they would be fleeing unnecessarily, expending precious energy, all the time.
If we go out to catch a horse, with our halter behind our back, acting as if we want nothing from him, he’ll register this as incongruence. We are the same way, if a leader promises to protect our local library, but is secretly shaking hands with a real estate developer who has eyes for the property, we feel something’s up. We register incongruences all the time, but we talk ourselves out of them. No wonder modern culture experiences increasing rates of chronic anxiety. Incongruence is a threat. And without congruence people, and horses, feel existentially unsafe.
But there is a deeper nuance to congruence here that is essential: to be as one is, in any given moment. This is a state of being that is about being fully present moment to moment, without some subtle contraction to change it, alter it, judge it. If I am anxious, I let the anxiety live inside me without panic. If I am bored, I allow it to be. This may sound radical. ‘But,’ you say, ‘if I let myself just be anxious, then nothing will change!’ This is a trick of the mind. Change only happens through real presence, peace and calm. And being panicked about our anxiousness hasn’t changed anything except make us more anxious.
In learning to be congruent, we learn to tell ourselves the truth. I suggest this practice to my clients: each day, all day, tell yourself the truth.
Please note: this does not mean that because you’re telling yourself the truth, you now have to share it with others, or make radical changes externally. Pressuring yourself to do that undermines your practice because it will make your task seem too overwhelming. No, just keep with a simple internal practice of telling yourself the truth. Is your body telling you that you are sitting down to coffee with someone you’d rather not be with? Just notice; tell yourself the truth. Is your gut telling you to be weary of that new girlfriend? Just notice; tell yourself the truth.
With our clients, working to master presence and congruence is a fundamental practice that underlies all of our other work. And here the horses are expert teachers. Horses (and people) need to feel that those around them are congruent – telling the truth (and telling themselves the truth). Here again the dominant cultural paradigm misleads us. Many of us were told, ‘Don’t let a horse know you’re scared or he’ll take advantage of you.’ Again, another tale. Horses don’t mind fear, or anger, or frustration or dislike. What causes them concern is when we are feeling a so-called negative emotion and not comfortable with it. That registers as incongruence. The tale is based on a misunderstanding—most people are uncomfortable with fear, and it is that incongruence that makes a horse mistrusting, not the fear.
The tale is also based on a basic cultural overlay that emotions are not good things, and need to be controlled at all cost. Kerry J. Sulkowicz, MD, a psychiatrist and psychoanalyst and the founder of the New York City-based management consulting firm the Boswell Group says, “Some of the worst work environments have a ‘macho’ culture where there isn’t much attention paid to the way people feel.”
In our work at the Institute, we coach our clients to be emotionally courageous, to be able to bear and be fully present with their entire range of feelings and emotions. They then cultivate that skill to apply courageous presence with others, and thus wield a powerful, effective, confident and positive influence especially in high anxiety situations.
Of all the needs, congruence is the most fundamental. Without congruence, all other aspects to herd safety are compromised. It is exactly the same with human beings. In order to feel safe, we need to feel congruence within ourselves, and externally. Without it, we begin to feel stressed, and in chronic cases of incongruence, we can become ill.
Sense of personal space and right to be here: Through being congruent we know and befriend ourselves, and gain a sense of our right to be here as is. This comes quite naturally to horses; it would never occur to them that they were worthless, had no right to be here, shouldn’t take up space, should be different, or should not get in the way. Spend time with horses you’ll get a sense of their unapologetic presence and their unambiguous solidness on the ground.
You’ll also notice that each one maintains a sort of cushion of air around them through which they negotiate their personal space. Through this larger cushion of air, they in fact take up more personal space than their actual physical body mass. When people allow themselves a similar ‘cushion of air’ around themselves (energetically, emotionally and metaphorically), many positive things happen. They feel more present, more sensitive, and more aware of other’s crossing their boundaries. They are also more aware of others’ personal space, energetically and emotionally. They feel more confident too.
It would also never occur to horses that they were separated from all of life. Culture distorts this knowing for us, and leads us to imagine we are disconnected from all things—individual solitary silos, aliens and imposters—which leads us to either ‘play small’ by pretending to have no influence or ‘play big’ by wielding overbearing influence. Knowing we belong to and are connected with all things gives us more confidence to safely, unapologetically just be here, present, and grounded without any unnecessary egotistical props.
Leadership: Again, our culture gets it wrong with the herd. We are told the lead horses are dominant, when in fact the two are very different. Dominant horses are the ones who disrespect boundaries and are bullies. Because of their behavior and unless they are corrected, they tend to be isolated from the group altogether. Naturally, no one wants to follow them. The lead horses are the ones who display alertness, a keen sense of their surroundings, and a respectful kind but justly firm presence that establishes and protects all members’ place in the herd.
Unfortunately, human dominants tend to procure leadership positions (due to our tolerance for incongruence), hence our confusion around leadership. This leads to organizational misbehavior, irresponsibility and poor public policy. It’s a shame, because such a culture discourages those more sensitively inclined to take leadership positions where they are most needed. Many good hearted, wise, sensitive professionals who come to us are ambiguous about concepts of leadership, power and influence because they imagine it to belong in the domain of the dominants. This is a gross misunderstanding and is leading us down a dangerous path. The key behind true leadership is not dominance but justness.
Horses teach people how to be excellent leaders because they respect nothing short of justness, along with clarity, presence, genuine care and the willingness to make requests. And in fact, they will constantly test their human students to see who is the leader—the horse or the human—not because they are ‘vying for power’ or ‘needing to see who is boss’, but because the safety of the herd depends upon it. When a client steps into his or her leadership role with their horse through making clear requests, the horse is instantly soothed and calm. Why? Because requests mean they are being taken care of.
Relationship: Horses become stressed and depressed when isolated. They need each other to thrive. It is sad to note that it is a common practice in North America and Europe to board horses in stalls, or loose boxes, separate from one another. But we do the same with ourselves as well. We go it alone, isolate when we feel frightened or overwhelmed, and create organizational structures that discourage truth telling and thus encourage isolation. It may look like we are all together, but we are alone together. Much more can happen in the creative synergies of authentic collaboration, supportive community and creating allies around us who hold us accountable to our authentic best.
Place: Through leadership, requests, relationship and congruence, every horse in the herd has his right place so that he can best joyfully thrive and contribute to the wellbeing of the others. Some horses are more comical, and provide entertainment and play, some more pensive, others have immense curiosity. In Jim Collins’ bestseller Good to Great, he makes the well known bus analogy. “First get the right people on the bus, the wrong people off the bus, and the right people in the right seats and then figure out where to drive it.” This is not cutting edge thinking, this is 40-million-year-old wisdom. The herd is constantly moving towards placing the right horse in the right seat on the bus, and establishing the right direction to drive it. Hmmm, that’s a strange image. But anyway, you get it.
To move forward, we need to wake up and see that our culture is based on a fair share of ‘husbands tales’, and also a dominant predatory paradigm. While the predatory paradigm has its place (there is nothing wrong with predators—in certain circumstances bringing out the lion within is acutely necessary), it was never meant to be the whole story. It only accesses half of our capacity. Human beings are omnivores, not just predators or just herbivores, and so we have within us the capacity to engage in both predatory and non-predatory approaches to power. Having the capacity to make an informed, wise, deliberate choice between our capacities poises us for greatness, and the possibility for making real, sustained and responsible change in the world.
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 congruence, presence, clarity 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.