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Leadership development takes to the stables.

Leadership development takes to the stables

Most managers don't know much about horses. And that is precisely why Beth Duff thinks they can be useful in management development.

Beth is director of Gentle Leadership Ltd, which puts learning with horses at the centre of its programmes. Writing in Emerald journal Training and Management Development Methods a couple of years ago, she stated: 'Horses fit the bill perfectly for leadership and team development. They are acutely sensitive to our body language and intentions...They read people very easily and give excellent feedback on the impact of our physical presence, acting as mirrors for us and indicating the changes we need to make to become more effective.'

One task, for example, involves team members working together to move a horse to a designated spot in a field. They are not allowed to touch the horse; they can speak to each other while planning but not while engaging with the horse; and they are forbidden from bribing the horse.

'Team members soon discover that the horse ignores them unless they are of one mind and holding to their plan,' wrote Beth Duff. 'It often takes them a little while to put this into practice, but once they do so they can move the horse very easily and hold its attention.'

Training needs to be memorable in order for it to be applied. By operating outside their comfort zones, managers learn valuable lessons in assertiveness, taking responsibility, communicating effectively and building relationships, all of which they can use back at the office.

Joe Dispenza, in his book Evolve Your Brain - The Science of Changing Your Mind, explains what makes an event memorable. 'The more novel an experience is, the stronger the signal to the brain,' he writes. 'The stronger the signal, the more likely the memory is to be stored long-term.'

In the May 2011 issue of Workforce Management, Kranz cites innovative practices that are making leadership development more creative and engaging in the USA. The author describes training programmes involving working as part of a fire-fighting team, improvisational comedy workshops, jazz-infused leadership workshops, trekking through the mountains of Nepal and visiting the beaches of the World War Two Normandy landings. The author describes why these experiential approaches to leadership development are successful.

At the root of the leader's success is the ability to forge a team out of a collection of individuals. The young soldiers who stormed the Normandy beaches in World War Two, for example, were not in the blame game; they believed in their mission and fought hard to cover one another's back. Salter (P31, FCO) argues in the May 2011 issue of Fast Company that this is what any team aspires to - 'passion, unity and an absolute conviction that you can achieve whatever you want as a group'.

Team-building is assuming increasing importance in the modern economy, where job hopping is common, especially among younger workers with little or no allegiance to the organizations that employ them. Salter explains how US basketball team Miami Heat created an effective team out of a number of highly talented but individualistic sportsmen.

Moving pre-season training to an air-force base 600 miles from Miami - where the players ate together, wore matching black T-shirts, practised twice a day and toured the firing range as a group - did not work. They could not wait to escape back to their lives in Miami.

The real bonding did not occur until the team began to lose matches - and lose badly. Says Salter: 'Nothing brings a team together like a common enemy. Google needs Microsoft. Under Armour needs Nike. The Heat needed, well, everybody who was not on the Heat.'

The players were not only upset about losing, but also about letting one another down. From then, a chemistry developed between them - a chemistry that was in constant flux as the bonds between team members changed. According to Salter, the key to leadership is to be aware of these shifting bonds as early as possible - and to act if they seem in danger of corroding team spirit.

But this is not an easy task. It demands paying constant and close attention to individual foibles and idiosyncrasies and making small changes in behaviour to accommodate them - which, when you think about it, is a bit like what happens between an accomplished rider and his horse.

Perhaps it really is time to take leadership development out of the classroom and into the stables.