January, 2008 News

Leadership and the Power of Vulnerability

As we reflect on the past year, make our resolutions, and plan for the future, many of us are intimately aware of the challenge of moving out of those well-worn patterns that keep us from realizing our goals and living life to the fullest. And so, at the beginning of a brand new year, I thought I would share with you some of my thoughts on the journey we are undertaking, as leaders and explorers in our own right—and as teachers of future leaders, educators, parents, riders, artists, and pioneers in multiple fields.

The details of bringing our dreams to form, as you all well know, are neither simple nor straight-forward. We are stepping off the map, trying to change habits that have been active in our species for thousands of years. It takes tremendous courage and tremendous, unflinching self-examination, not to mention copious amounts of creativity and compassion and patience. Yet if I were to pinpoint one key issue that everything else seems to hinge upon, I would have to say it is humanity’s low tolerance for vulnerability that must be addressed at those countless road blocks along the way. Just about every reactive pattern I see, in myself, my staff, in apprentices, approved instructors, and in clients, has, at its root, an aversion to feeling vulnerable. Yet simply becoming conscious of this tendency is not enough to change it.

Developing a tolerance for vulnerability doesn’t happen overnight. It’s like isometric muscle control. Holding a weight in a challenging position is more difficult than lifting and releasing in successive repetitions. You may be able to do 100 sit ups, but how long can you hold a single crunch position before your body begins to shake and your abs finally give out? Tolerance for vulnerability is isometric exercise for our emotional muscles. When we realize that we have no control over a situation, when someone else’s behavior surprises us, when our own self-image and beliefs are challenged, when our most cherished plans and coping mechanisms aren’t working, how long can we stand to feel vulnerable before we go into reactive mode? Before we give into the urge to flee, fight, dissociate, gossip, shame ourselves, or blame others?

Equally important is assessing how much compassion we have for ourselves and others when we lapse into reactive mode. Would we, after all, consider someone un-evolved or defective if she couldn’t hold a 50-pound weight for more than 20 seconds the first time she tried? I certainly hope not. We would simply encourage her to try holding the weight for progressively longer periods of time, delighted when she sustains this uncomfortable position for 25 seconds the next day, 30 the next, perhaps increasing the weight the following week, and so forth.

As “personal trainers” of emotional agility, we must adopt the same attitude when it comes to strengthening our capacity for vulnerability, for sitting in uncomfortable emotions without panicking, for tolerating increasingly longer and more weighty periods of not knowing what to do. We cannot step into the unknown; we cannot come up with creative solutions to novel situations without strengthening those isometric emotional muscles.

Emotional Strength Training

For some odd reason, the human ego can embrace the “no pain, no gain” concept at the gym, while ignoring, even rebelling against, its relevance in emotional strength training. “Afraid to feel anything significant, the human ego creates an intricate suit of armor that might seem brave, accomplished, and successful on the surface. Ultimately, however, this false sense of self is more concerned with avoiding pain than living authentically. Proud, critical, competitive, controlling, and manipulative, the persona’s compulsion to shield us from life’s inevitable challenges and surprises ultimately backfires, isolating us from the love, beauty, connection, and fulfillment we so desperately crave. Paradoxically, we must be willing to feel vulnerable to access our true power.”

While I managed to sum up the challenge succinctly in the above quote from “Moonlight’s Embrace” (card 21 in the Way of the Horse deck), I must admit that I have to constantly go back and read my own advice. But I do get progressively stronger through that relentless, uncompromising experiential learning program called “Life.”

The ability to keep your heart open through the 10,000 joys and 10,000 sorrows of life, to be compassionate with yourself and others, these are core teachings of both Christianity and Buddhism, but they’re also key concepts of one of the best books I’ve ever read on corporate leadership. In the New York Times bestseller,The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, Patrick Lencioni makes it clear that teams whose members have a low tolerance for vulnerability cannot function efficiently or effectively.

“Trust lies at the heart of a functioning, cohesive team,” he writes. “Unfortunately, the word trust is used—and misused—so often that it has lost some of its impact and begins to sound like motherhood and apple pie…. In the context of building a team, trust is the confidence among team members that their peers’ intentions are good, and that there is no reason to be protective or careful around the group. In essence, team members must get comfortable being vulnerable with one another.

“This description stands in contrast to a more standard definition of trust, one that centers around the ability to predict a person’s behavior based on past experience…. As desirable as this might be, it is not enough to represent the kind of trust that is characteristic of a great team. It requires team members to make themselves vulnerable to one another, and be confident that their respective vulnerabilities will not be used against them. The vulnerabilities I’m referring to include weaknesses, skill deficiencies, interpersonal shortcomings, mistakes, and requests for help…. It is only when team members are truly comfortable being exposed to one another that they begin to act without concern for protecting themselves. As a result, they can focus their energy and attention completely on the job at hand, rather than on being strategically disingenuous or political with one another.”

In my experience building an increasingly effective team over the numerous incarnations of the Epona Center, I’ve found that key staff members who’ve proven to be most effective in their jobs over the years have several things in common. They are less concerned with being perceived as perfect, and more concerned with exercising the ability to stay present, with themselves and others, when they’re feeling vulnerable. These people are willing to admit their mistakes. And they most certainly do make them, because they’re also willing to take risks. They avoid gossip, not conflict. They engage in debate, yet they question themselves more often than they question each other. They ask for help, and they offer help outside their own areas of responsibility. They give people the benefit of the doubt, yet they sense when they’re own boundaries have been crossed, and reset those boundaries—without trying to order everyone else around, or secretly, silently resenting that others have different ways of relating to and perceiving the world. All the while, they realize that relationship is more art than science, that it’s counterproductive to hold grudges, simply because the music of true connection—with oneself, one’s destiny, and with others—is filled with harmony and dissonance.

Innovative staff members develop the Three C’s—creativity, courage andcompassion—in equal measure. In their finest moments, they refrain from taking conflict personally or making personal attacks. They avoid using others’ weaknesses to promote their own strengths and reputations. They delight in each other’s expertise, talent, and hidden genius, recognizing individual accomplishments while ultimately considering them assets to the team.

None of this comes easily. Ultimately, staff members must be willing to do their own rigorous personal work. Even so, they don’t dwell on the problems; they work on solutions. And then they go “back to grazing,” back to enjoying the beauty of the horses, the ranch, the changing seasons, the clients, the unique gifts of their fellow colleagues, and the privilege of doing their work, no matter how messy or unpredictable it seems.

In short, they can take risks, experiment, be creative, courageous and compassionate in direct proportion to how much vulnerability they can tolerate in themselves and support in others.

Equine Adventures in Team Building

Over the years, as Epona received more inquiries about leadership training, I surveyed a number of programs as a result of being asked how our approach compares with others. I’ve also been working on activities and workshop schedules that can more efficiently teach relevant skills to people with little or no knowledge of my books, and more often than not, little or no experience with horses. Why, they want to know, is an equine-facilitated program worth the time and money? Is this just a fad, like ropes courses and fire walking? Or is it a legitimate short cut to success?

In this respect, I find it exceedingly helpful to draw on Lencioni’s observations. InThe Five Dysfunctions of a Team, the author emphasizes that “achieving vulnerability-based trust is difficult because in the course of career advancement and education, most successful people learn to be competitive with their peers, and protective of their reputations. It is a challenge for them to turn those instincts off for the good of a team, but that is exactly what is required…. Unfortunately, vulnerability-based trust cannot be achieved overnight. It requires shared experiences over time, multiple instances of follow-through and credibility, and in-depth understanding of the unique attributes of team members. However, by taking a focused approach, a team can dramatically accelerate the process and achieve trust in relatively short order.”

Here’s where a thoughtfully constructed equine-facilitated leadership and team building program comes in. While I’ve had success with one-day programs, particularly for corporate leadership programs whose participants have been working together for some time, the benefits of attending a three to four-day retreat are immeasurably greater precisely because members have the time to undergo multiple shared experiences that exercise emotional fitness, interpersonal, and problem-solving skills as they step into the unknown together, learning effective ways of supporting each other and asking for help. Along the way, they endure repeated instances of feeling vulnerable as each horse honestly reflects back to them the nuances of their leadership styles, allowing the entire team to witness each person’s strengths, challenges, blind spots, and previously unrecognized potential. Members practice new tools for motivating others without dominating or micromanaging. They learn the difference between boundaries, assertiveness and aggressiveness. And they develop leadership presence at a nonverbal yet increasingly conscious level.

Presence is notoriously hard to define, but executive coaches recognize its importance, and struggle endlessly to foster it in their clients. You know it when you see it, but it’s difficult to break it down or pin it down. As such, leadership presence is difficult to outline in a book and methodically teach to others, primarily because it’s a multi-faceted, primarily nonverbal, non-linear, non-rational phenomenon. As a result, it is one of those qualities most efficiently evaluated and exercised through experiential education.

In this respect, the horse is the most impressive barometer and tuner of leadership presence I’ve ever seen. It’s absolutely no accident that the greatest of all historical leaders—from Alexander the Great to George Washington—were exceptional horsemen, equestrians who had close, legendary relationships with horses who were heroic in their own right. Such animals were not mindless machines. They required and continued to foster an almost supernatural level of leadership presence capable of motivating others to face incredible odds and create innovative, highly ambitious empires.

As a boy, Alexander the Great demonstrated an empowered yet thoughtful leadership style in gentling Bucephelus when no other warrior in the kingdom was capable of getting near the unruly stallion. Alexander’s interactions with the horse not only demonstrated his innate abilities, impressing his father and countless historians to come, it can be argued that his talent was further honed and seasoned through forming a partnership with a horse of exceptional spirit. After all, jumping on a feisty horse in front of your dad’s friends and gaining the animal’s cooperation under the mind-bending stress of battle are two entirely different things. Alexander rode Bucephelus in numerous campaigns for years to come.

While great military and business strategy requires intelligence, the brain isn’t the only element, perhaps not even the primary element, involved in leadership development. It’s now commonly recognized that only ten percent of human communication is verbal. And yet in our culture, we’ve virtually become mesmerized by words as our social and educational systems teach us to dissociate from the body, the environment, and the subtle nuances of nonverbal communication. In his book, The Other 90%: How to Unlock your Vast Potential for Leadership and Life, Robert K. Cooper predicts that the “dinosaurs of the future will be those who keep trying to live and work from their heads alone. Much of human brilliance is driven less by the brain in your head than by newly discovered intelligence centers—now called ‘brain two and brain three’—in the gut and the heart. The highest reasoning and brightest ingenuity involve all three of those brains working together.”

If we’re serious about finding solutions to the challenges of this complex technological, now global society we live in, we do in fact need to engage all three of those brains. The true pioneers of the 21st century are those who figure out how to tap the vast resources of nonverbal intelligence. In this respect, horses provide the ultimate shortcut—as they always have. For thousands of years these sensitive yet powerful beings carried our bodies around the world, allowing us to explore terrain we would have struggled to traverse on foot. But there was something much more profound happening in these interspecies associations. Learning to form partnerships with those horses provided the most elusive yet important education a human leader could acquire—that “other 90 percent” exercised at a wholly nonverbal level.

The Missing Element

I’m not just talking about balance, will, timing, focus, courage, and assertiveness. I’m talking about intersubjective awareness. The fact that few people truly understand what intersubjectivity is explains why we have such a hard time understanding the “mechanics” of relationship, and ultimately, training innovative leaders of all kinds, whether they be CEOs, parents, teachers, or team members.

In our culture, we prize and over-develop objectivity, the ability to stand back and observe without affecting, or being affected by, what we are observing. Subjectivity is considered the artist’s prerogative. We appreciate people who communicate their feelings, dreams, and views to us in evocative ways. Yet it’s really intersubjectivity that we value in a fine work of art, the ability of the artist to depict a truth that we too feel deeply, yet may not have found the right poetry, visual symbol, or music to express. Artists in our culture are worshipped more widely than mystics, because no matter how practical we think we are, we’re willing to pay good money for songs, films, photographs, books, and paintings that reflect what we crave to understand about deeper layers of nonverbal awareness and experience.

Intersubjectivity has an immensely more practical purpose as well, in daily relationships, in business, and most certainly in cultivating the skills associated with leadership and team building. Basically, intersubjective awareness involves paying attention to your own nonverbal experiences/body language cues and those of the people you’re interacting with at the same time. It’s easier said than done. Most adults, in fact, just aren’t very good at this because the skills associated with intersubjectivity have been seriously neglected in our culture. People who are even nominally aware at this level seem to possess an interpersonal gift, a powerful yet vague talent that can’t be readily taught. Or can it?

Horses are constantly drawing attention to the intersubjective dimension of relationship. They mirror and respond to dynamics that remain largely unconscious in humans. Yet when we become conscious of what we are communicating to others nonverbally, and what they are communicating to us nonverbally, a whole new universe of information is suddenly available to us. This information virtually demands that we develop the ability to improvise as we respond and adapt to these subtle cues on our way to achieving any goal.

In learning how to sense and set boundaries with a horse, in learning how to motivate, move, and improvise with a thousand-pound being, people see, feel, and know, deep in their bones, what leadership presence really is.

A great leader is responsive to her followers. She knows how to motivate without micro-managing. Yet ultimately, there is no formula: some horses, like people, need more impetus and supervision to follow through than others. An accomplished rider or manager is more like a generator than a dictator; she knows how to turn up or turn down her energy and focus according to the needs of the individual. In a similar way, business leaders must learn to dance with the changing needs, whims, and perceptions of the market, their clients, their competitors, and their employees. Here we begin to recognize why exceptional leadership is often recognized as an art. The ability to dance with multiple factors and factions to achieve ambitious goals cannot be achieved through purely rational, methodical means. (It’s no accident that Donald Trump titled his best-selling autobiography The Art of the Deal.)

In engaging the “other 90 percent,” we begin to approach our true potential. At that point, work does feel more like an art—and becomes so much more satisfying as a result.

Here’s wishing you much success, satisfaction, and joy in 2008!

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