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How Horses Transformed My Life - A Lesson in Leading From Behind

Horses in the wild are organized into herds. This is their social structure. A dominant stallion is the herd leader and is responsible for the safety of the entire herd. An alpha mare co-leads with the stallion. Every horse in the herd has a role and learns from the others how to be an effective member within the group. The survival of the herd and its members requires cooperation, collaboration and strong leadership.

What most people don’t realize is that the stallion does not typically lead his charges from the front. That is the alpha mare’s job. The stallion’s job is to lead from the rear. His job is to maintain a broad point of observation and oversee the big picture. To use our contemporary parlance, he holds space for the safety of the herd. His vision is broad so that he can monitor threats from the perimeter as well as see what lies ahead in the distance.

Holding space for others and maintaining objectivity to see the big picture are skills that require great effort to learn to do well. I am still learning them. In the past it has often been easier and faster to ‘just do it myself’, rather than take the time to allow another person to learn and practice a new skill. In my early and mid-career I prided myself on my initiative and my ability to accomplish the task at hand. As I mature, I realize that creating space to allow others to lead is a form of leadership in itself.

Taking a big picture view and holding space is the opposite of micromanagement. Leading from behind requires patience, willingness to being open and encouraging collaboration. It is prioritizing the journey and the collaboration not just the outcome or destination. It is a delicate balance of empowering others to take initiative and action while ensuring that the team remains safe and functional.

Rather than being directive and action oriented, I find myself asking open ended questions to prompt leaders-in-training to think strategically, to question whether their proposed actions will produce the desired result, a result that is in alignment with the group’s mission, vision and values. These exchanges often lead to deeper conversations, greater understanding, richer quality decisions and more inspired action.

Stepping back from situations and observing creates the opportunity for new and fresh perspectives. Lately I have mindfully stepped back from action and held space for other team members’ contributions and actions. Leadership from behind is fundamentally coaching. It is providing a safety net and guidance when needed, but allows others to move forward freely and make their own way.

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