Lessons From a Living Legend: Leadership Is Not A Hierarchy

We’re walking down a narrow aisle with a downward slope into a dark arena enclosed by solid wood walls. Shelby halts, looks — his ears flick to me as if to ask, “Are you sure?”

His distaste for confinement is only natural. A horse’s primary strategy for self defense is flight. Given a threat, Shelby has been conditioned — indeed, as his entire herd was for hundreds of years — to run first and ask questions later.

When restrained by walls that prevent him from both seeing threats approach and escaping imminent peril, it makes sense that he’d balk.

And yet….he follows me. He follows me into a dark, clanking metal box on wheels that transports him through the world. He follows me over wooden bridges that make suspect hollow thuds under his hooves. He follows me into mud puddles of unknown depths that could be harboring crocodiles for all he knows.

And he follows me through that dark aisle way into the arena. He stays close, even when I drop his rope and walk away. When he hears a strange noise, his ears twist toward me for leadership.

And I always tell him the same thing: It’s okay. I’m here, I’ve got you.

Shelby has me thinking about leadership a lot lately. In our little herd of two, I’m the responsible one. I call the shots, I make the rules, but I’m not the dictator.

What images does the word leadership evoke in your mind? What if we compound that word into leadership training, leadership skills or leadership development?

For me, it’s blue and white corporatized stock photos of smiling men in suits, maybe shaking hands. I see Helvetica and bulleted lists for “how to be an effective leader,” “ten qualities that make a great leader” and “how to motivate people.”

But when I think about what leadership actually looks like — I mean, in practice, not in theory and not in some kind of hypothetical, antiseptic corporate figment — it looks a lot more like the relationship I’ve built with this beautiful creature.

It’s a relationship built on trust, on safety, dignity and mutual respect. I remain steady. I see that his needs get met. And in return, he trusts me to nudge him beyond his comfort zone.

Not because I say so.

Not because I’m more powerful than him.

Not because there are consequences.

Not because he’ll face rejection, isolation or social shaming if he refuses (and yes, horses are highly social creatures).

True leadership isn’t a mandate. It’s a relationship.

It’s not giving orders from on high and watching them scuttle off to fulfill your requests. It’s not shaping them into a mold you created, carving away all the awkward bits that don’t fit.

Leadership, when done correctly, builds mutual respect, and thus safety.

A creature — even a human creature — that feels psychologically and emotionally safe is much more likely to take risks, to tiptoe to the edges of its comfort zone and peer into the abyss.

It’s not telling others what to do, or even directing them. It’s walking beside them, assuring that you’ve got them. You’re there. You know it’s scary, and you’re in it with them and you’re taking care of them.

True leadership doesn’t shape people to what you want them to be. It develops people — or creatures — into the best possible versions of themselves, without pinching, confining, controlling or wheedling.

Let me ask you, how much less traumatized would people be if our leaders behaved in this way?

And how much less would you feel like you were getting it wrong, like you weren’t good enough or talented enough or smart enough?

Because let’s face it, leadership that mandates from on high forces you to perform a role in order to gain acceptance. It requires not that you cultivate your strengths and skills and allow yourself to flourish, but that you crudely jam your being into a pre-formed mold made to fit everyone, and thus suiting no one at all.

And that makes you feel like you don’t measure up.

Enter, anxiety, fear and imposter complex.

Often, I don’t think these pervasive feelings of worry and insecurity are so much stemming from individual psychology as they are from a culture that negates safety.

A culture who prizes a top-down leadership model — a hierarchy.

How much less traumatizing would our workplaces be if leaders were taught to partner rather than dictate?

If leadership looked more like gaining the confidence of a wild animal, fraught with fear and poised to run rather than the Soup Nazi, ready to punish you at the slightest shimmy of wrongness?

How much happier would the world be if our leaders — our executives and hedge fund managers and diplomats and politicians — learned to recognize the signs of threat in a person’s nervous system?

If they were taught how to guide someone through a stressful situation without triggering or overwhelming them entirely?

If they did their OWN trauma work — bringing unseen behavioral programming into the light to illuminate perpetual patterns?

If our leaders centered their nervous systems, if they were present in their bodies, how much less traumatizing a place would the world be?

Let me leave you with this:

If you are a leader, it’s not your job to demand results. It’s your responsibility to cultivate safety, dignity and respect. Results will take care of themselves.

And sometimes, that process starts with doing your own work.

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