* At Chennai’s HQ Leadership India, horses are leadership coaches
* Horses respond to human body language and intention, observes HQ Leadership India founder Isabelle Hasleder
* Hasleder lives in suburban Chennai with her husband, architect Dhruv Futnani, on a farm with about 50 horses and ponies
Aishwarya SJ, a team leader at a multinational research organisation, has been using the lockdown during the Covid-19 outbreak to acquire some leadership lessons online. No, none of the boring webinars with endless talking heads for her — her screen is filled with leadership gurus who are frisky to a fault, complete with flowing manes and bushy tails that swirl eagerly to offers of carrots.
The curious goings-on are part of a leadership training module offered online (timed with the lockdowns) by Chennai-based HQ Leadership India, where the ‘coaches’ are horses!
And here’s why. Horses respond to human body language and intention, observes HQ Leadership India founder Isabelle Hasleder. And, unlike dogs, they don’t form a unique bond with the owners, and will instead obey anyone who commands authority. It is this distinctive equine attribute that is at the heart of the horse-assisted leadership programme that Hasleder oversees.
An Austrian who has won international equine dressage competitions and worked in senior management positions at German and Swiss multinationals in India, Hasleder lives in suburban Chennai with her husband, architect Dhruv Futnani, on a farm with about 50 horses and ponies.
In pre-Covid times, her three-year-old leadership programme — rooted in a regimen initiated by EAHAE, the Germany-based International Association for Horse Assisted Education — saw participants interact directly with the ‘trotting tutors’.
With the need for social distancing today, Hasleder has formulated the online ‘Virtual to Reality’ module. One of the exercises simulates a sudden high-risk event and gauges the executives’ response to this.
So, there’s a video showing a herd of horses gambolling about gaily, representing ‘business as usual’.
But the introduction of a giant red ball — symbolising an unknown external risk, such as the virus outbreak — into their midst sends them scampering. Eventually, however, the herd leader musters up courage and marshals his ‘troops’ to overcome the crisis. Watching the videos, and reflecting on the unfolding action, executives gain an insight into effective leadership in times of crisis.
“When we are introduced to something new, we become susceptible to a feeling of fear; we feel like running way. But upon closer reflection, we can get over that fear and get on top of the situation,” explains Hasleder over an email interview.
To Petra Buchholz, a retired purser in a German airline, who runs a horse-assisted leadership programme in Germany, the ‘red ball’ represents a sudden uncertainty in today’s workplace or changed circumstances in a project. “It was inspirational to see how the horse tackled it and how mentorship worked to support that,” she adds.
The discussion invites participants to reflect on ways to support and motivate oneself and others.
Another exercise, involving a ‘Treasure Hunt’, requires team members in remote locations (apt for today’s ‘work from home’ reality) to coordinate and guide an on-field rider to seek out ‘clues’ scattered around the Chennai farm, and secure the ‘prize’. “This exercise uses the horse-powered programme to hone leadership skills in the digital world,” observes Hasleder.
Buchholz notes that the ‘Treasure Hunt’ was a measure of how quickly and effectively a team could attain its goal. The mettle of each member is tested, and a nimble team would switch roles to serve the larger goal. In situations of stress, entrenched behavioural patterns surface, revealing one’s personality and leadership style, she adds.
Are there any cross-cultural communication gaps when teams from across the world work together on these horse leadership programmes? Hasleder says she’s found that “people in India seem to want to take their time and judge and analyse before they give their response, unlike, say, people in Europe, who seem a bit more — shall we say — pre-conceived.”
Asked how the learnings from the programme helped deal with real-life work situations, Aishwarya says they do trigger associations and, more specifically, address one’s gut feeling to a fluid situation. The questions that come up during the discussions help apply the learnings to workplace situations, “with humour, for the most part, but occasionally touching the soft spots that may come to the surface”, she adds.
Shravan Kumar, an assistant manager at a Chennai-based automobile manufacturer, concurs. “The live interactions with horses helped me get a measure of the leadership qualities that are required in times of crises.”
Similarly, Srinivas, an employee engagement strategist at EngagePlus, an education centre management system platform that allows clients to connect with customers remotely, says many of the learnings were particularly useful in situations where the team might get bogged down while carrying out a task, and the challenge is to keep them motivated and on track.
For Aishwarya, one of the important takeaways was the idea of “situational leadership”. Hasleder explains the concept: “When a company is going through an early-stage innovation phase, you have to lead from the front, which is the lead-by-example leadership style. At other times, you have to be alongside the horse, which is the ‘team approach’. And, sometimes, you have to lead from behind: where the team’s objective is defined and the path is clear, and the leader just needs to goad his team into completing the task.”
Buchholz was struck by the realisation that, with a horse, there is a certain authenticity of interaction.
“There are no secrets, and it’s all out in the open,” she says. All of them work for the herd’s well-being, even if they each have different ‘personalities’. “As humans, we can perhaps tune into that model and listen to others with whom we have a shared destiny,” she notes. “It could turn out to be very clever behaviour.”
That learning, agrees Hasleder, is what she is looking to instil through her programme. “Humans typically tend to utilise their intellectual capacity at a sub-optimal level. Programmes like these demonstrate clearly that there is much that humans can learn from horses to become better leaders — and perhaps even better humans,” she adds.
Can’t say ‘neigh’ to that.