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If you think leading means doing it perfectly, you might want to come on down to the corral.
I’m standing in a round corral with a horse named Auzzie, just hanging out before we get to work. Auzzie keeps lifting his lip at me – laughing the way horses do. He’s been doing this since we met several months ago, and today he’s doing it more than ever
Today’s assignment is to get Auzzie to walk around the corral by connecting and conveying my intention non-verbally. There is a giant whip in the center of the ring I can use, but I’d rather not. A group of my peers is watching. Everything in me wants to do this the right way: no whip, no raised voice, all Vulcan mind-meld and horse-whisperer. In addition, I’d like to accomplish all this while looking ultra-cool. Natch.
I stroke Auzzie’s head. I am clear about what I want: I want him to walk around the ring. I stand next to him and try to compel him to step forward by my excellent example of what walking is.
Auzzie looks interested, but he doesn’t move.
I lean against him hoping to force him off balance. It works, but he doesn’t start walking. He’s too busy laughing.
Auzzie and I are connected; I just can’t move him.
I pat him a final time and say, “Alright, let’s get going.” My intention shifts from “c’mon, Auzzie, could you just….” to “we’re going to do this, NOW.” This is often how it is when I switch from trying something to committing to getting it done, from following to leading.
I pick up the huge whip in the center of the ring and before I’ve even turned to face him, Auzzie breaks into a fast trot. I have two thoughts: “He is GORGEOUS,” and “that’s too fast.” I lower the whip and back away from him, hoping to slow him down.
That’s when he starts galloping.
I cycle among panic at failing to control him, appreciation for his beauty, knowing that Auzzie is trying to tell me something. After several circuits, he stops and faces me, panting. I go pat his head and thank him for whatever it was that just happened. I’m stunned at how he took off once I got clear, and overwhelmed that he went all out for me. Our connection never fails to amaze me. Auzzie laughs.
Social researcher Brene Brown’s research tells us that connection is the key to happiness, creativity and innovation. Connection is the key to collaboration, and to leadership that enlivens. And vulnerability is what unlocks connection. That makes vulnerability a key leadership skill.
Brown defines vulnerability as the courage to be imperfect and authenticity as the willingness to let go of who you think you should be and simply be who you are. What stops us from showing our true selves is the fear that we are not acceptable. Rather than risk the shame of that, we stay guarded and numb and full of performance anxiety. This makes it so very difficult to connect.
If there is a leadership crisis, it boils down to this inability to connect authentically.
Horses have none of our issues with authenticity or vulnerability. That’s why I find them to be such good teachers.
No horses near you? That’s OK. Here’s what you can do right now to reclaim your vulnerability and ability to connect:
1. Refuse to be bossed around by shame. The moment you hear that voice in your head that tells you’re no good, or says “Who do you think you are?” laugh like Auzzie, then take the action that riled up that voice in the first place.
2. Relinquish perfection. Is there someone you find impossible to connect with, no matter how hard you try? Something you’re not doing because you can’t do it well enough? Stop trying and do: Do it badly, do it imperfectly, do a terrible job, but do it.
If you live in the San Francisco Bay Area, and want to work with the horses, here’s the info.
If you haven’t seen Brene Brown’s TED talk on vulnerability, you’re in for a treat.
What do you think? Is vulnerability as a leadership skill, or — ?