“Every interaction is a reflection of a mutual relationship that both sides are freely choosing to enter into.”

Looking around at the world today, there are some pretty frightening examples of leadership. Reading the most recent news headline about our political leaders, business leaders, or cultural icons, I can’t help but ask: how did we get so far off the mark? How did our ideas and examples of leadership stray so far from true power? I believe the answers to these questions lie in evolving our understanding of leadership, in a way I hope to illustrate with the story below.

I recently had a new client, Thomas, come to me for an Equus Coaching session. Thomas was familiar with horses and a huge fan of equus work. He told me that he wanted to focus his session on his ability to express himself as a leader. We were working with a large buckskin quarter horse, Mary. She was fast-moving, sensitive, excitable and very curious about connecting. I told Thomas that I would give him some space and time to interact with Mary and we would watch what unfolded.

Thomas decided he wanted Mary to make a few laps in the arena in order for them to get to know each other better. He encouraged her to move and Mary was quickly able to read his requests. They fell into a nice rhythm, walking, trotting, and cantering around the center of the pen. Thomas then decided he wanted to connect at closer proximity. He stopped moving and invited Mary in closer. They walked around the pen together, with Mary shadowing his movements. They both seemed to be enjoying themselves. At this point, I checked in with Thomas and asked, “So, how do you think it’s going?” He replied that everything was going great. “I think this horse has really accepted me as the leader.”

I have heard this kind of language so many times before from different horse clinicians, trainers, well-meaning teachers, and very loving horse owners all seeking to be seen as the leader in the eyes of their horse. I know it’s a common way of framing what takes place and much of the language in the horse industry reflects the belief that if we can get a horse to shadow what we do, then they must be comfortable doing anything we ask. However, I don’t believe in this logic or in this way of thinking. In fact, I think this hierarchical framing minimizes the beautiful mutuality of what is actually taking place.

I took a deep breath and broke the news to Thomas. “Thomas, I hate to burst your bubble, but this horse doesn’t see you as the leader.” He seemed stunned. I continued. “It has been my experience that these animals don’t give over leadership. They don’t look to anyone else to tell them how to be, what to do, how to feel, if they’re doing things correctlyall of those concepts are human social frameworks. What horses have taught me, and continue to teach me, is that everything is about a quality of connection. Every interaction is a reflection of a mutual relationship that both sides are freely choosing to enter into.

Thomas seemed curious. “Can I tell you what I see happening?” I asked. He said yes. “I see you being clear about what you want and willing to be yourself in initiating play and seeking a connection with Mary. You haven’t been holding back or hiding and you don’t appear to be trying to do anything perfectly. You seem comfortable not knowing exactly how you’re going to connect, but trusting that by placing your desire for connection at the center of what you’re doing, the connection will happen naturally. As a result, I see Mary feeling your overall presence and ease. Your body language and expressions are so clear that she’s able to understand you easily. She’s doesn’t seem afraid or intimidated. Rather, she seems grounded in knowing what speed she wants to move at, what direction feels good to her, and to what degree she wants to connect. She’s in touch with her own autonomy, needs, and desires, and because you’re not trying to dominate the situation, she’s also in touch with her choice. As a result of all of this, you two are building a relationship based on connection, mutual respect, and a non-verbal understanding.

Thomas looked at Mary and took in everything I had said. He shared that he liked this way of framing the situation and that it actually resonated much more with his own heart. I was glad he was so receptive to this idea. Absent the fear that he needed to establish himself as superior, what was left were two sentient beings engaging in a relationship that was nurturing to both.

In my experience, those who emanate leadership are individuals who don’t shy away from their own vulnerability. Rather, they tend to humbly embrace their imperfections and speak to their own unique experience of a situation. They also thrive on creating strong relationships. They  understand that genuine mutual connection is primary. To me, nature reflects that true leadership is rooted in authenticity, trust, and reciprocity. As I watch many of our world leaders and people who are in positions of power, this idea of leadership seems hopelessly lost. Many still seem to operate from the false belief that leadership is about dominating or subsuming others, about building yourself up, at the expense of those around you. Or about trying to prove yourself and sell your value to others. Nothing could be further from the truth.

One of the most powerful lessons that horses continue to teach me is that the only thing we ever really lead is our own experience of life. It seems that globally, we are in the midst of a transition—one that is maturing our understanding of leadership. While a more patriarchal model may have worked in the past, where we idealized a central leader and trusted others to make decisions for us, today that model needs some serious re-imagining.

My work with horses has opened my eyes to a new definition of leadership—from one of hierarchy to one that understands the power of mutual connection. Can you imagine how the world might look differently if our actions were grounded in that relationality? Instead of such a hierarchical culture of competition and scarcity, we might enjoy more moments of play, creativity and true innovation with one another. Like Thomas and Mary, in the alchemy of two individuals being wholeheartedly themselves, we may even find entirely new ways of communicating and forming bonds despite vast cultural or even species differences.

I want to invite you to join me in becoming curious about your own personal leadership. Do you notice any places where you may be giving over autonomy or authority of your own experience and where you can begin to reclaim it? Are you trying to convince the “horse” that he or she should see you as the most capable leader and thus relinquish their own ideas in order to follow you instead of valuing both perspectives as equally important? Where can you let go of trying to control others, setting them free to have their own experience and choose the type of connection that feels most nourishing to them?

Like the rest of nature, if we choose to place our focus on the quality of the connection we are having with others, we’ll finally be practicing the one thing we truly do lead—the sharing of our own unique, engaged presence that naturally leads the way to a whole new world.