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  • Reverend James Squire

I Never Had a Pony

There are few pictures of my brother and me when we were little, but one thing for sure is that I never had a pony ride. It is not in my memory, and it is not captured on film. I can’t remember any desire to ride a horse although I do have a memory of riding one for a short period of time on a visit to Colorado. I didn’t find it to be a pleasant experience.

I have written recently about passive leadership which isn’t passive in the traditional sense of the word. Passive leadership deals with the question of which is more effective someone who is the alpha leader making commands and decisions that are handed down to others or as the New Yorker once described in a cartoon someone’s immediate inferiors. Passive leadership implies leading by example within any group. A friend recommended a book to me regarding this question by, of all people, a very successful unorthodox horse trainer, Mark Rashid, who wrote Horses Never Lie, The Heart of Passive Leadership. This friend had been thrown by a horse and fractured her wrist and damaged her hip and decided not to get back on a horse again because of other priorities. One of my former students was thrown from a horse and caused her to suffer a concussion that resulted in a long time of recovery. She recently purchased her dream horse and is ecstatic. Another former student has a therapeutic horse center where riding a horse is a positive game changer for her clients. Horses can tell us a great deal about healing as well as leading.

The book by Rashid deals with group behavior, in this case of horses, and what we can learn from them which obviously supports passive leadership by example and not leadership by force. Perhaps passive is not the apt descriptor. It is more about active modeling of behavior in horse culture when they are in a herd.

As far back as Machiavelli, people have been debating the question of what is the most effective leadership role when he wrote “It is better to be feared than to be loved, if one cannot be both.” He argued that fear could be a better motivator than love which is why it is an effective tool for leaders. Rashid, a recognized horse trainer, would say that he never experienced a herd of horses or picked one to ride that conformed to the Machiavellian notion.

There is a national statistic of 20% to 80% (many studies create a range) that says that people would quit their job because of their boss with a traditional style of leadership. The reasons are not surprising such as people feel that they could do a better job than their boss, the boss is a bully, the boss creates stress in the workers, or the boss is self- centered or just doesn’t value feedback.

We explored group behavior and ethical leadership in my ethics class. You have to start with the fact that people behave differently when in groups or, to use Rashid’s observations, herds than they do as individuals.

There are three classic positions to take regarding groups and leaders that form the basis of many governments today including our own. First, there is Thomas Hobbes who believed that people were insecure, competitive, and glory seeking in groups and therefore had to set apart a leader who was a Leviathan or mortal God. He had complete power over the group and couldn’t be removed much like the “alpha” horse that Rashid describes. Second, is the theory of Locke where all are equal and the leader emerges from the group and can be removed by organized revolution which we call voting. Third, we have the theory of Jean Jacques Rousseau who had the highest regard for people in groups. They should be regarded as the noble savage, noble being the highest tribute and savage possessing the basic biological instincts to get along with one another, survival and thriving through a cooperative spirit. This orientation captures the notion that “he who governs least governs best” and would view the alpha person or horse as absolute power corrupts absolutely. This theory is where passive leadership would be described by Rousseau’s theory of leadership.

Rashid has great credibility in the world of training horses. He wrote the following which mirrors Rousseau’s idea, “Watching the horses in those herds interact was an eye-opening experience for me. It was the first time it really dawned on me just what the old man (his mentor) had been talking about when he told me about horses wanting to ‘conserve energy.’ It was also coming clear that horses actually give some thought as to how they conserve energy during the day. Primarily they conserve energy in a herd situation by willingly following a leader that they know won’t cause them unnecessary stress or aggravation. In the herds that I had a chance to work with, it was evident that seldom, if ever, was the chosen leader the alpha horse. Rather it was a horse that had proven its leadership qualities in a quiet and consistent manner from one day to the next. In other words, it was a horse that led by example, not by force.”

I now know the origin of the expression, “She has horse sense!” It should be the way that we learn from Mark Rashid’s long time working with horses as he seeks to enable us to have better leaders. Rashid is the very embodiment of success in his profession. Perhaps we should refer to him as the “horse whisperer” for he brings experience and knowledge to understanding what makes a horse follow a leader and who that leader turns out to be. He connects it to our challenges of the question of the best style of leadership.

There is now a whole school of leadership and moral development that reverses Darwin’s theory of the survival of the fittest, that strength is the key factor on the evolutionary spectrum. The counter argument is that horses as well as other animals such as dogs were able to evolve because their behavior was more collaborative than competitive. Rashid’s observations are another example that support this notion in humans.

Next time that you see a herd of horses, be reminded that the leader possibly came from within the ranks with a cooperative team building spirit. Alpha leadership is no longer an effective approach. That is what Trump and certain members of Congress have not figured out. Be grateful that others have. Bottom line on Rashid’s view, horses don’t like drama. They like quiet confidence and working to make the herd reflect that confidence. Makes me think of President Biden.

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