Learning About Leadership – The Extra-Ordinary Experiences

In the last issue I examined some of the ‘everyday’ experiences that teach us about leadership. Today I will explore ‘extra- ordinary’ approaches to learning about leadership. Innovative thinkers seek out extra-ordinary and relevant ways to explore leadership. I have chosen: equine-assisted learning, poetry and the visual arts.

Natural Leader
Have you ever watched someone come through a crowded room? Noticed how the talk grows quiet? How the crowd moves apart to let the person through? Although there appears to be nothing unusual about her, you’ve thought to yourself “Now there goes a leader”! Leaders have a presence that commands attention. This presence is also true in the animal world, particularly for horses. Horses live in a world where leadership is negotiated from the strongest to the weakest. Although the challenge can involve physical contact, often it is directed through a look, a movement that stops short of contact, a threat, or a stare. I have worked with horses for some time now – in particular my paint horse, Indio. This work has developed in me, an awareness of the unique learning opportunities presented by horses.

For many, working with horses is a new experience. For some it is a return to a childhood love, or a new dimension of dealing with leadership. Regardless, the learning environment is charged with relevance.

Horses are motivated by the fact that they are prey animals. They need, and some even long for, leaders to keep them safe from predators. However if the leader doesn’t take on the responsibilities, the horses will live and react in the moment. Speed and flight are their strategies. To work in this environment means that the leader must understand their mentality, must create meaning and provide support and security. When the rider hasn’t established her leadership role, they take charge of their world – i.e. speed and flight.

In these workshops, participants learn to develop a meaningful relationship and construct an environment of trust and cooperation.

Touching The Heart And Imagination
Artists rely on their ability to challenge our understanding of everyday reality. They put metaphors, sensuous details, rhythm and beauty in front of us and ask us to make sense of a new view of our world. Like artists, leaders inspire by using the power of language and images to create their world view. However, much of the writing on leadership is based on two areas of focus: the military and religion. They shape our images, words and metaphors. For example, we talk about strategic planning, about vision and mission. Although our references to military and religious worlds are not made consciously, they create a context for thinking and feeling about leadership.

David Whyte (1994) was one of the first writers to link poetry and leadership. He found that it touched the heart and the imagination in powerful ways. Why not seek out your favourite work of art – poetry, visual arts, music – and have it with you as a constant reminder that leadership and the arts are interwoven.
As we are considering other ways of exploring leadership and worldviews, Palmer is worthy of notice. He encourages us to think from another perspective:

“Spirituality is not primarily about values and ethics, not about exhortation to do right or live well. The spiritual traditions are primarily about reality. [They] are an effort to penetrate the illusions of the external world and to name its underlying truth, what it is, how it emerges, and how we relate to it.” (Palmer 1983)

So let me leave you with this question: what has spirituality got to do with leadership – if anything?

The Cycle Of Issues
Issues and trends follow cycles. In the beginning, they take up a lot of space by focusing our attention and shaping our learning. Key ideas don’t disappear entirely, but do experience cycles where their profile is lower. At the moment, there are several significant ideas that are returning front and center.
First, women in leadership programs are experiencing revitalization. It is apparent that although a lot has changed, women are still not visible enough at the upper levels of organizations.

Second, mentoring first appeared in the writings of Homer around 800 BC. In the Iliad, Ulysses asked Mentor to guide his son Telemachus during his absence, to make sure that he had experiences fitting to the son of a great king.

In 1978, Daniel Levinson published “The Season’s of a Man’s Life”. For the next decade mentoring became a constant in work done around leadership. It is now twenty years later and there is a resurgence of mentoring as a key aspect of leadership in both Canada and Australia.

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