What have horses got to teach us about group dynamics and leadership?

This article tells the story of a new and very different member joining the herd and invite  us to consider what horses may have to teach us about group dynamics and leadership. 

The existing herd consisted of  Phil the leader, Colin who is next in line and previously held the position of leader,  Ed who is very happy to be the penultimate  herd member and with  no ambition to be  leader or even to  move up the ladder and lastly Aragon the old age pensioner happy to live out the last years of his life without any ambition to lead any longer.  Then in comes Stanley a little, spotted, miniature, one year old stallion, to join this herd of geldings.

Initially, Stan was given a separate paddock alongside the herd’s paddock so that he had time to get used to his new environment and for  all the  horses to begin to acquaint themselves  over the fence. After 4 days, he was allowed into the main paddock and was introduced to Phil the leader who is also the herd’s protector. With no arguments with just  the two of them it looked like a smooth transition  and Stan understood immediately that Phil meant him no harm .

When the others were let into the paddock , Colin clearly felt threatened and tried to attack Stanley. Phil immediately prevented any attack by placing himself between Stan and Colin. Usually Phil and Colin are very close but when it came to protecting Stan, Phil’s attitude towards Colin changed and there were a series of fights between them,  however with -no injuries as Colin  ultimately backed down. Ed was not interested but curiously Aragon also tried to attack Stan and Phil once again intervened to protect the new arrival . After a couple of months the conflicts are at a minimum. Stan has learnt that fighting is only needed in special circumstances and he responds appropriately when one of the herd moves an ear or head asking him to move out of their space .

Trust, Respect & Hierarchy

In the world of horses new members have to earn trust, respect and ranking and Stan is doing this. In fact  because he is small, young, playful and fearless he has introduced a new dynamic into the herd . He stands under their tails when flies are in abundance and they show patience and acceptance. They allow him to play and at the same time teach him boundaries.  And because he is not afraid of things like plastic bags, long sticks and brooms they too have the opportunity to learn that such things are not as scary as they might have thought.

So here we have the leader managing the transition, the conflicts and the new order,  the  hierarchy being challenged, the  newcomer bringing a different energy into the group and simultaneously experiencing  a new and challenging environment,   the dynamic  in the herd changing, and a host of other possibilities with new learning for all.

On  our leadership workshop you have the opportunity to experience  what you can learn about leadership, groups and your own style from observing and engaging with the horses .  In this case study we have floated a range of questions for you to consider that may give insight into your own situation or style:

How similar or different is our leadership behavior In human groups today?

Do we intervene enough or too little when there is a new member or at times of transition?

Are we constantly grappling with being the leader?

To what extent as leaders or group members do we welcome new arrivals and give them a fighting chance especially if they are different from the mainstream in stature, age, culture or behavior.

Do we take extra care if that member is noticeably different from the mainstream or do we treat all in the same way and if so why?

How alert are we to potential bullying and how much or how little do we intervene? 

How important or not is  hierarchical structure,  and maybe even tension, in human groups?  

What  skills do we have to manage conflict or do we shy away and hope that it sorts itself out in time? 

What if  a newcomer was were different like Stan and were arriving into a new group, how might they be feeling and how could they be on-boarded so that their unique skills and contribution could add value.

What other learning and questions come to mind from Stanley’s arrival , Phil’s leadership and the rest of the herds behavior and how it relates to human groups and leadership? Could Stan become the leader and if so what would he have to do or be? 

There is so much rich learning and the opportunity to shift perspective from working with these majestic and wise animals.  What is yours from this case study today?