I had a horse, briefly. Sage was part Appaloosa and past draft horse. It was like riding a couch. During our brief time together, it seemed that one of us was wounded more often than not. I enjoyed taking advantage of the rare times we were both in good health. One of those times was a chilly, late-fall afternoon.
The owner of the farm where I boarded Sage strongly suggested two things- wear a helmet, and stay in the ring. But I was a baby-boomer who grew up safely sans helmets, whether for biking, skiing or horseback riding. I scorned helmets as yet another example of helicopter parenting, akin to wrapping ourselves in bubble wrap. And on this particular day, with no one around, I felt confident enough to venture out of the ring towards what I had heard was a nice trail around back. Sage seemed to like the idea as well, picking up into a rare trot. As we rounded the last outside corner of the ring, his trot turned into a gallop, without any input from me. The last thing I remember was how surprised I was that I was still in the air, yet there was no horse beneath me.
They told me later than when Sage returned to the barn without me, the owner ran out and found me unconscious on the ground. In Yale New-Haven ICU they informed me I had a small brain bleed and would be their tightly-tethered guest for the next few days.
I got to know the ceiling tiles well. Once the pain was manageable and I knew I was out of the woods, my thoughts went to the speech I had to give the following week on Leadership, and how the hell I was going to write it while immobilized in a hospital. Hell, I hadn’t been the leader- the horse was. And suddenly, I had my inspiration.
1. You’re either a leader or a follower- and that can change in an instant.
As much as I thought myself the confident leader of our little expedition, Sage knew better. He knew I wasn’t fully confident or committed and took full advantage. When he took the lead, I found myself scrabbling in empty air for a horse long gone. There’s no one lonelier than a leader left alone on the cold, hard ground.
2. Make sure everyone know the goals and has clear directions.
My goal was the trail. Sage knew more than I did- he knew there was a lovely field full of fallen apples in the opposite direction. We did not share the same goal at all! My inexperience with managing a horse with a different agenda gave him the power to quickly change direction. In business, not only do leaders need a clear vision, they need to share it with everyone else, and be sure it’s understood and supported. They need to know where the company is going, and how to get themselves- and everyone else-to the destination.
3. Don’t slacken the reins.
Be prepared to react quickly and make adjustments. Yelling “whoa, ho, whoa, what-the-hell?!” while flailing madly turns out not to be not so effective. Expect rocks, trees, and open meadows with apple trees to create hurdles and distractions. Keep yourself and your team on course. Don’t let them throw you.
4. Own It.
It wasn’t the horse’s fault, no matter what my mother said. A leader has a personal commitment to the organization and its goals and associates success or failure with personal growth. A leader has to care enough to do it again- better. Get back on the horse, and be better prepared the next time.
5. Have and use the right equipment.
The best rider at the barn always wore a helmet and a vest. I thought I was too cool for that and paid a painful and uncomfortable price. Don’t be shortsighted and cut back on critical investments that diminish your ability to beat the completion. For the want of a helmet, I lost my best jeans! After I returned to the barn, I found that my husband had made a “subtle” visual point by hanging my neck brace next to my helmet.
6. Deliver news, not drama.
I have a very Irish family. We can over-dramatize anything. To look up from my immobilized position- flat on my back, neck brace holding me in place- to see a sea of faces with their “brave, but doomed” look was to assume they were there to say sayonara. Wear the right face when delivering bad news, and just say it. No “good news, bad news” crap- no one remembers the good news. For me, it was my straight-to-the-point husband. “You’re OK except you can’t eat or move for a while.” Tell it like it is and move on.
7. Learn from the best.
Best practices aren’t always from anointed experts. If I’d paid more attention to the younger riders, I would have noticed that all of them wore helmets and vests. One of the nurses enlightened me on the connection between the morphine I was happily dripping into my veins and my painful migraines. The kind person who transported me and carefully avoided bumps to ease my pain taught me about paying attention to little things that matter. Your customer service people and back office staffs are experienced in the real world- seek them out for practical wisdom that doesn’t always make it to the boardroom.
8. Managing vs Leading.
There’s a big difference. Managing involves impersonally executing goals and implementing change. It focuses on the task. Leadership is personal. Great leaders inspire and promote change. Leading focuses on people. Clearly, my horse was uninspired. I like to think he ran Lassie-like back to the barn to let people know Timmy, or Mary Beth, or whatever that person’s name is, fell down a well or something. But it’s far more likely he knew it was dinner time.
9. The customer/client/patient service people are first and foremost advocates for their customers.
Nurses make exceptions to doctors’ orders, overlook minor rule-bending, go out of their way to provide extra help. One made a call every twenty minutes to get me the change of medication I needed. Customer service people will go out of their way to help their customers, sometimes going so far as to send them to the competition if they can’t satisfy the customer’s need. We hire customer service people for their people skills, right? Because they like helping people by meeting their needs? So why do we hobble them with indefensible policies, understaffing, lack of management support? Good leaders understand that to achieve the organization’s goals, they need to meet the needs of three key players- the customer, the organization- and the employee.
10. You need the right people on your team.
You’re only as good as your last interaction. In a hospital, it’s doctors, nurses, CNAs, room cleaners, transporters, food servers. In every organization, everyone matters.
What’s the one differentiator that can make your organization rise heads above the competition? Your people. I’m a huge fan of UConn’s Women’s basketball. A team full of talented women who know their strengths and roles and play them brilliantly. Yet Coach Geno Auriemma says his key differentiator is the strong, effective leadership on his many successful teams. So I’ll leave you with this- how can you be the difference maker in your organization?
And- tally ho!