This week, my horse Big Red has reminded me about what it takes to be a leader, not a rescuer… Let me explain.
Right now I’m working towards a very challenging but worthy goal with Big Red – to learn a particularly important horsemanship skill which will help us to achieve our goal of becoming safer on our trail rides together. Anyone who’s ridden a horse through challenging terrain will know that having a steady horse can, quite literally and without exaggeration, be a matter of life and death. So, it’s rather important that we get this right.
Just like when we’re guiding our teams through rough, uncharted waters towards an important business goal, on Day 3 of Big Red’s learning journey, we’re experiencing some expected challenges. And let’s face it, as is so often the case with teams, it’s not the component skills I need to teach, as he already understands all the “bits” he needs to pull it together. Rather, as a leader I need to create the conditions for his own breakthrough insights to occur, so that he can integrate everything he’s learned to execute this unfamiliar and challenging move.
Now, I must admit that there have been various points in the process where it’s been tempting to rescue Big Red from the struggle and discomfort of learning.
As with leadership and teams, and even when raising kids, when the going gets tough it can be tempting to want to stop the discomfort and just create a quick fix – which we know won’t produce sustainable results in the long term. It’s at this moment we must ask ourselves: “Am I a leader or a rescuer, today?”
Unlike constructive leadership, which determines the worthy goal and engages our team in the process of achieving it, rescuing is rarely constructive and it can play out in sneaky, surprising ways. For example, when the going gets tough we can attempt to rescue our teams from the discomfort of the challenge, by dropping our standards and saying “it’s ok, that’s good enough!” (when clearly it’s not), which actually denies them the chance of a true sense of achievement.
Working with Big Red this week, I have watched his mental struggle and I’ve had to remind myself that a leader will create a compelling goal and safe conditions for learning, and not “steal” from our learners the chance to feel proud of their achievements by lowering the standards required.
We can also try to rescue our team by giving all the answers, when we intuitively understand that a process of self-led discovery will always be the source of truth and learning. We see this often enough in overly directive and authoritative leaders, who are trying to meet their need for significance and certainty by saying “just do it this way, now!” – rather than letting the team bring their creativity, heart and potential to the challenge.
While being overly directive might give us momentary validation for having all the answers, we intuitively know that learning happens from the inside out, and we can’t force learning upon others – we can only provide the stimulus and optimal conditions for the insights to occur. I know that forcing the answers upon Big Red would simply be a reflection of impatience and a lack of faith in him to find his own way – not great leadership qualities! So it’s a fine line between allowing learning to occur and getting the results in the timeframe we need, but I’m not going to “force” my trusted partner to do anything which might break his spirit or create distrust between us.
Being a leader, on the other hand, is what our teams need from us the most. In service to our goal of safe trail riding, I need to help Big Red to learn the answer for himself about the rewards of pulling off this new move, and to create the conditions where he can learn without fear of failure. And that takes as long as it takes – the process cannot be rushed or forced, else our trust will be broken.
This idea translates readily back to the workplace, where our teams need us to be leaders, not rescuers – to create the conditions in which they can be successful, rather than to drop our standards (stealing their sense of achievement), or force outcomes by being overly directive and robbing them of the satisfaction of learning.
When Big Red learns how to find the right answer for himself, in the safe conditions for learning I have created, then that moment, the achievement and the glory will be all his.
Therefore, we must manage our emotional state to stay in the frame of a leader, rather than rescuer, in service to our team. So it’s worth asking yourself, am I a leader or a rescuer today?
If you’d like more information about how horses can teach us about ourselves, and what great leadership looks like, drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org or check out our Hooked on Leadership program at www.hookedonleadership.com.au