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Is Your Experience Getting in the Way of Effective Leadership?

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Like most coaches, I have a coach. In fact, I have several. One of them is my riding instructor, Siggi Wolff of Cavallis Dressage. Almost every time I work with Cato, my Anglo Arabian horse, under her keen eye, I learn something that translates directly into the leadership arena.

Cato and I practice a lot of downward transitions these days – the slowing down from one gait to the other, for example, from the canter or trot to the walk or halt. Sure, we’ve got the basics down. Yet our downward transitions sometimes resemble more of a pelican dive for fish than a smooth, balanced transition, with Cato’s hind end well underneath him and ready for the next gait.

During a recent lesson, I felt frustrated and grumbled, ‘I don’t know what’s wrong! It’s not like I got in the saddle yesterday.’ To which Siggi replied,

Amanda, it’s obvious that you’re an experienced rider.
Right now, however, you’re not being effective.

She may as well have spoken to me from a burning bush. What she said was an epiphany of sorts, not just because it was true for me that moment in the saddle, but because in my coaching practice, I see how it’s often true for leaders, too.

Experience matters, but it isn’t enough to be effectiveI’m a well-educated horse person with many years of riding, and just as many years in horse care, management, education, and training. I’ve worked with a variety of trainers, some of them famous. I’ve studied many riding disciplines, from dressage to at-liberty. I’ve competed in one of the toughest equestrian sports out there – endurance riding. I have lots of experience.

Experience can be like insanity.
It prompts you to do the same thing again and again,
regardless of the result you get.

One of the things I realized in my lesson is that my experience was a drawback for making needed changes. I’d gotten lazy. I’ve done hundreds of downward transitions. My transitions weren’t horrible. They weren’t great, either.

Both Cato and I had gotten a little too comfortable with our ‘process.’ We were on autopilot – doing transitions the same way every time, based on our experience. I accepted the result and immediately went on to the next thing without much considering the quality of that result.

I coach many experienced leaders. Sometimes they grumble and say, “I don’t get it. I’ve done this for years. Why isn’t this working?” Siggi’s insight reminds me that: 

Considerable experience does not necessarily
lead to greater effectiveness.

To increase your leadership effectiveness, refine the basics

Even if you don’t know much about riding a horse, most people understand that transitions are fundamental to basic riding. If you can’t slow down or stop your horse, you’ve got a problem. Even more importantly, however, transitions are foundational to excellent riding. They prepare both horse and rider for what comes next.

And a good transition is not an easy thing to achieve. Many riders and horses work for years on their transitions, improving timing, balance, suppleness, and impulsion.

Effective leadership – like effective riding –
requires constant practice and continuous learning.

When we’ve reached a certain level of leadership, we can tend to think we’ve got the basics buttoned down. No need to revisit them. We get complacent. For example, many successful leaders feel like they’ve got communication handled and never reexamine their approach. For these leaders, it’s a good time to shed their resistance to develop new experiences.

One of the reasons I wasn’t getting the best transitions with Cato was that I wasn’t communicating clearly with my riding aids (legs and seat). My timing was off, and my body was literally behind his rhythm. I was sloppy in how I asked for what I wanted, and I got sloppy results, too. I had to get interested in achieving a different result to get a quality result.

Effective Leaders Embrace Practice!

To get better transitions, I spend the first ten to fifteen minutes of each ride just practicing. Walk – trot – walk. Halt. Trot – canter – trot. Halt. We practice on the trail as well. Over the last several months, this basic, seemingly simple work has significantly improved our transitions. Cato doesn’t crash into my hand when I apply my leg like he used to. He carries himself more independently; he’s more focused and attentive. His “whoa” is balanced and straight. He waits for my next cue.

Honestly, I’m surprised at the difference this attention to the basics has made. Everything about transitions is easier for us. We perform better together. We’ve tackled more sophisticated riding challenges. All because we looked again at something basic and foundational and worked to make it better. We’ve achieved a level of nuance and subtlety as a riding team that delights and inspires me.

Especially if you’re already an amazing leader, it’s important to evaluate your leadership effectiveness from time to time and how you might improve. To embrace the practice of leadership in a way that sharpens your perspective keeps you honest, and refines your abilities.

To be an effective leader, consider these questions:

  • How effective are you in queuing your people up for success?
  • How impeccable are your leadership aids – timing, communication, unity?
  • What does it mean to embrace practice in your life?
  • What leadership basic could you revisit to increase your effectiveness?

There is no finish line where I will know everything. I am always learning and deepening my understanding. It is important to dig deeper, consider new approaches, and pay attention to leaders you admire. Get curious and revisit the questions above regularly. The progress you make will help you stay inspired and inspiring.

Contact Amanda

If you want help becoming a more effective leader or you’re curious about how horses can help you do that, contact me at (425) 488-7747 or send me an email. I’ll share and learn right along with you. Because that’s how you develop the qualities of a good leader.

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