The horse-whisperer’s guide to winning at work

Venky Vembu Chennai | Updated on December 24, 2018 Published on November 09, 2018

Isabelle Hasleder, with two of her ‘leadership coaches’

At a Chennai training school, executives learn leadership skills – from horses!

Of leadership lessons, Claudios Fernando, Director at Woory Automotive India Pvt Ltd, can likely find plenty in management tomes and business books. But the on-field lessons that he recently got from a herd of new ‘leadership gurus’ in Chennai were somewhat unique. Even the deportment of his personal trainer was distinctive: his ‘mentor’, for instance, had four legs, a bushy tail — and broke into a trot whenever Fernando waved a whip!

The peculiar ‘leadership development’ protocol that Fernando underwent is easily explained: over at HQ Leadership India (leadership, in Chennai — founded by Isabelle Hasleder, an Austrian who has ‘gone native’ in India — the ‘coaches’ are horses. And corporate executives, including some from Fortune 500 companies, are imparted leadership training that is rooted in a “horse-assisted education” programme initiated by EAHAE, the Germany-based International Association for Horse Assisted Education.

‘Horse sense’ is the key

Horses respond to a human being’s body language and intention, says Hasleder, who has won international equine dressage competitions and has worked in senior management positions at German and Swiss multinationals in India.

And unlike dogs, horses don’t form a unique bond with the owners, which means they will obey anyone who commands authority. On the other hand, “if the horse senses you are diffident or afraid, you will not be able to establish yourself as the leader.”

This understanding is at the core of the horse-assisted leadership programme that Hasleder oversees at the suburban campus with 50 horses and ponies and the riding school that she runs along with her husband and architect Dhruv Futnani.

HQ Leadership India is the first in the country to offer this programme. “The HQ in the name stands for Horse Quotient, which is a measure of how well you can manage groups of horses – or employees,” notes Hasleder.

How it works

As part of the training regimen, which costs ₹17,000 per participant per day, executives first reflect on their leadership style. Says Hasleder: “They rate themselves on a few parameters: How clearly do you communicate? How good is your trust in others? Do you lead by example?”

After that, the executives get to meet the horses, with whom they undergo a series of tasks, some of which require humans to work as a team. These tasks test their communication skills, and the authority they command with the horses.

Executives are also required to change their leadership styles depending on the nature of the task — or the specific horse they are leading.

Says Hasleder: “It’s called situational leadership. When a company is going through an 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.”

What the horses reveal

Occasionally, these sessions reveal hidden aspects of leadership that surprise even seasoned executives. Hasleder recalls: “During one particular training session, there was a CEO who came across as a strong leader. He felt that one of his subordinates was a bit of a weakling: that he doesn’t convey authority. But while working with the horses, the mid-level executive could complete the tasks in half the time as his boss, without exerting himself.”

In effect, she says, the horses showed up the ‘weakling’ as the more effective leader!

At the end of the day-long training, the executives go through the reflection process again, but this time, they rate themselves as from the horse’s perspective. “Would the horse think you communicated effectively? Would it feel you were able to convey your enthusiasm for the tasks?”

The takeaways

Fernando, who recently completed the training, speaks of the effectiveness of the regimen. “It’s a novel programme, and is very practical. I gained leadership insights into non-verbal communication, motivation, direction, and goal-setting.”

With horses and with human teams, the best leaders get the most done with the least amount of fuss, says Hasleder. “You have to be a horse-whisperer,” she adds. And the testimonials from Fortune 500 company executives suggest that in boardrooms across India, the whisper is growing progressively louder.

Published on November 09, 2018

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