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Leadership with Horsepower IV
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Leadership with Horsepower IV

You never stand alone

A leader never acts alone. He dares to seek assistance when he himself is unsure and occasionally delegates leadership to others. That is what I learned from my experiences in the corporate world and from horses.

The story of Harry de Leyer, as told in the documentary film Harry & Snowman – embodies all the features of the American Dream. The Dutch immigrant and resistance fighter arrives penniless on Long Island after World War II. There, he earns a living by giving horse riding lessons to children.

In 1956, with just 80 dollars, he saves the former Amish plow horse Snowman from the slaughter, only to resell him to a doctor. However, the horse jumps over a high fence twice and returns to his savior. This prompts Harry to repurchase Snowman. It is then revealed that the horse possesses a unique jumping talent. Thanks to Snowman, Harry becomes a multiple show jumping champion and achieves wealth.

To go through fire

The story of Harry & Snowman illustrates what a successful leader does: they help others bring out the best in themselves. When working with people, the most important question is: do they truly want to do it for me as a leader and as a person? Whether they genuinely commit to you and your organization depends on what they ‘get’ in return. Are they allowed to grow? Are they enjoying themselves? Do they have the freedom and the right support? Are you building a bond? Snowman would go through fire for Harry. Their success was attributed to unconditional trust and friendship between them. Snowman was grateful to Harry for saving him and seeing the talent within him. In turn, Harry was grateful to Snowman for enabling him to soar to great heights, both literally and figuratively.

A leader never acts alone. He dares to seek assistance when he himself is unsure and occasionally delegates leadership to others. That is what I learned from my experiences in the corporate world and from horses.

Peter Geelen

Seek assistance

Overestimation of oneself is one of the greatest pitfalls for a leader. It is possible that you are a visionary with extensive experience, but remain aware of your own limitations. Collaborate with people who excel in areas where you may fall short, and dare to seek assistance when you find yourself at a loss. Particularly for men, this can be a challenge. We are often reluctant to admit our own shortcomings.

Recognizing the importance of overcoming such challenges, I was reminded of this through my horse, White Knight. Last year, he taught me a harsh lesson by causing me to taste the sand, resulting in bruised ribs (also mentioned in my second blog). Following that incident, I was uncertain about how to proceed with him. Unexpected help came from an unlikely source, Kirby, the daughter of the stable owner, who specializes in working with young horses. Together, we diagnosed the issue: an ill-fitting saddle, combined with a probable negative experience from White Knight’s past in Ireland. This combination had led to a fearful reaction in my horse. With a different saddle and a great deal of patience, Kirby proceeded to train him. A clever strategy employed was conducting the training in a narrow corridor, limiting his space and reducing the likelihood of him becoming overly spirited. I am grateful to Kirby, and particularly to Silke, who continues to train White Knight further. He no longer throws me off, although he still experiences anxiety when I or someone else mounts him. We understand this and treat him with respect accordingly. We are aware that, over time, this anxiety will diminish.

Delegating leadership

Another misconception is that leaders always set the course on their own. In reality, leadership is constantly shifting; it involves both guiding and occasionally leaving it to someone else. When I ride White Knight in the forest, I indicate the direction we will take. However, he takes the lead in assessing potential hazards. As a vigilant prey animal, he possesses superior senses: he keeps his head up, sniffs, listens, and observes. Once I walk beside him, the roles reverse: his head lowers, he rests it against my arm, and he relaxes. He expects me to assume leadership. He lets go because he trusts me.

As a leader, you must be able to delegate leadership to others. Ask yourself whether it is clear when to switch and who takes on which role. Do we know that about each other and do we allow each other to assume those different roles? The crucial factor here is a shared vision. It facilitates seamless transitions between roles.

Balancing act

There is a lot of myth-making surrounding leadership. Leaders are too often portrayed in stories as self-made heroes who can do it all. However, the truly successful leaders are aware of their limitations and focus on what they do well. Successful leadership is never one-dimensional. It remains a matter of trial and error and hard work. It is a balancing act between taking charge and delegating, and between work and personal life.

Harry & Snowman also illustrates this. However, Harry’s success has a downside: he had to choose between his wife Johanna or his horses. After their daughter Anne Marie barely survives an accident involving a horse, Johanna asks Harry to give up horse riding. When he refuses, his wife leaves. Fortunately, he still has his horses, so he is not alone in his journey.

  • Am I willing to ask for assistance? Do I dare to ask for assistance?
  • Do I establish clear agreements regarding mutual expectations?
  • Do I also delegate leadership to others?
  • Do our team leaders take initiative themselves and fulfill their roles?
  • Am I there for them to guide, assist, and help them improve continuously?
  • Do I provide constructive feedback without personal consequences and create a safe space for them to give me honest feedback?
  • Do I guide, coach, monitor, and direct colleagues by being present on the work floor?
  • Do we have established core values and a collectively shared vision that make it easier to switch leadership roles?
  • Do I know who takes on which leadership role in each situation?
  • Do I know who excels in which areas? Do we support each other in taking on different roles?

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