Sounds strange, doesn’t it? I’ve grown accustomed to the quizzical looks over the years when I tell people we work with horses to help leaders develop the critical competencies necessary for today’s volatile workplace. It isn’t a gimmick, an arcane game or ropes course. It is a scientifically substantiated approach to experiential learning. One that greatly accelerates development thanks to the fact that our carefully structured exercises ferry participants through all four modalities of Kolb’s Adult Learning Style Inventory. Our approach also draws heavily from the neuroscience research of such luminaries as Dan Goleman, Rich Davidson, Jaak Panksepp and Ravi Rao. Going beyond psychology, the brain research that is continuously emerging enables us, as leadership development experts, to address the causal, neurological pathways that result in demonstrated behaviors. Traditional leadership development methodologies, focused on behaviorism (i.e., mainstream psychology’s embrace of cognitive behavioral therapy), have had thirty years on the main stage, and left us with a dearth of effective, mindful leaders. If anything, traditional approaches to development have added to the inertia in leadership we see all around us.
If you don’t believe me, ask Dr. Allen Hamilton, neurosurgeon at the University of Arizona Medical Center. Dr. Hamilton is employing a form of relationship-based, Equine Facilitated Experiential Learning. An approach very much in alignment with our own. If you happened to have missed it, here’s a story about Dr. Hamilton employing horses to cultivate emotional intelligence competencies, heightened sensitivity to non-verbal communication, and empathy with medical school students: http://www.today.com/health/open-say-neigh-horses-help-teach-med-students-6C9790792.
Need a second opinion? If you have a few minutes, I’d like to invite you to listen to Dr. Ravi Rao, a Harvard trained neurosurgeon (who also holds a Ph.D. from Johns Hopkins), who joined me on a radio interview, sharing his thoughts on our approach.
So, why is this approach so effective? The research demonstrates our brains have plasticity. We can, through conscious effort, literally change the way we interpret and react to the work around us on a basic, neurological level.
Neuroscience also provides insights into why human beings resist change. The brain consumes 25% of the blood glucose in our bodies at any given time. The majority of it is used to support our visual cortex and our near-term memory, the two parts of your brain you are using to read this blog. After that, the brain is very conservative in its use of energy. It takes far less energy to follow a well established neural pathway than it does to create new ones. Think of our established neural pathways as dry river beds cut deep into the side of a mountain. Every time it rains, the water follows the path of least resistance, cutting an even deeper rivulet down the mountain. Trying to get the water to flow in another direction takes significant effort.
Neuroscience guides our approach to sparking neurogenesis, particularly in the pre-frontal cortex, the brain’s executive center where the competencies of emotional intelligence emerge (self-awareness, social awareness, self regulation, and relationship management skills). By introducing novelty, (having a professional enter into a round pen to co-create a shared goal with a horse without the use of language, touch, or dominating behaviors is pretty novel) we disrupt the established pathways associated with problem solving. As the participant connects, engages and motivates the horse, fall-back behaviors emerge. Interpersonal behaviors. When we don’t know what to do we do what we know, and the leadership behaviors people demonstrate with their direct reports are revealed to the participant on their own accord. These are powerful, breakthrough moments of self-awareness bursting to the surface of consciousness. No one is telling the participant a thing…other than the horse. The participant is seeing their own behaviors reflected back to them through the behaviors of the horse. And horses don’t lie, shade or judge emotions. Emotions are information to horses (this is also a neuroscience finding based upon the work of Dr. Jaak Panksepp), as they should be to us as well.
Research from the field also provides new assessment tools that enable us to hone in on specific areas of development. Here’s a short, video white board describing this application:
As we move deeper into the 21st Century, adaptive challenges will continue to confront us. Challenges in which we don’t know all the answers. Challenges that will require collaborative efforts from a multi-cultural, multi-generational workforce to resolve. And resolve at speed, in real time. Working with horses from a neurologically substantiated perspective imparts learning agility in leaders. Horses require us to park our ego at the barn door as well. They aren’t impressed with titles, paychecks or artificial authority. They are impressed with presence. This approach enables leaders to learn how to dance in the moment, acting with mindful discernment even when confronted with highly novel challenges. And to do so while maintaining congruency, transparency and authenticity. Horses, and humans, demand no less.
© 2013, Terry Murray.