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Courses with wild horses

Horse whispering is a new leadership training tool, reports Joe Clancy

Whisper it softly but a new technique is being employed in leadership training, designed to develop the next generation of college principals and leaders in further education.

At the first ever summer school organised by the Centre for Excellence in Leadership, the new management college for FE, wild horses were brought in to enable middle and senior managers to hone their leadership skills.

The idea is that if college leaders can get a horse to respond by giving it clear instructions and gently cajoling it to do what they want, the same approach might work with humans.

CEL brought in horse whisperer Kelly Marks to show how her communication techniques in befriending wild and disturbed horses, using body language and eye contact, can be applied to management.

She is a specialist in horse psychology, using the methods of Monty Roberts, whose multi-million selling book The Man Who Listens to Horses inspired the Robert Redford film, The Horse Whisperer.

The 30 participants were given three tasks to perform with difficult horses as part of the four-day summer school last week at the Ashridge Business School in Hertfordshire. One was to steer a horse on a long lead around an obstacle course, giving it the right signals and nudges while walking behind it. Another was to get a horse to move backwards and sideways. A third was to lead a horse around an arena while off its rein, and then regain its trust so it would allow its reinto be re-attached.

George Cleary, continuing professional development manager at Bury college in Greater Manchester, said: "It demonstrated that the best way to lead these horses is to allow them enough rein to let them progress on their own, gently nudging them in the right direction, and using control only when necessary.

"I can definitely see applications in a college environment. It is about giving people space. It has made me think more about what other people might be thinking, and consider in greater detail what the consequences of my actions might be. "It has made me aware of the fact that my body language can give off unintentional signals."

Kelly Marks explained the philosophy behind the leadership courses she has been running for business managers for the past five years. "There are questions in relation to using the whip and forcing horses to do things, as there are with people," she said.

"Control can be asserted by assuming that the horse has an attitude and you are going to have to use force to show them who's boss. Alternatively, you can try to get into the horse's mind to develop a relationship so the horse wants to do what you ask it to.

"Horses don't have an agenda. They don't care about the clothes you wear, how much you earn, what your accent is like.

"Of course, force can work. If somebody holds a gun to your head, it can be effective, but if a horse is frightened of you he tends to be more dangerous. But if you can build trust with a horse, it will look after you.

"If force worked all the time then people would not be sending their horses to us. Our methods work where others have failed."

Kelly is the daughter of a racehorse trainer and was a successful jockey who retired after winning the European championship in 1995.

Her life changed following a chance meeting with Monty Roberts 11 years ago. She worked alongside him, helped him write his best-selling book, and became the first ever teacher of his methods with the organisation she founded, Intelligent Horsemanship.

Business people who attended her courses recognised the potential leadership applications, and invited her to run courses in management for their staff.

Alison Walker-Fraser, who set up the summer-school project, said the horse whispering programme is one vehicle CEL is using to "give people different experiences to enable them to understand more completely what their strengths are".

She added: "The aim is to challenge people's thinking, particularly about communication, the body language you use, how you influence people, how important it is to have a clear plan and thinking through what you are hoping to achieve.

"The horse is just a vehicle to show that if you do not give the right communication, the horse will start playing up. You will lose confidence and the horse ends up ignoring you."

Other parts of the summer school focused on the journeys people take to leadership and how people grow into top jobs and emerge as effective leaders.

Lynne Sedgmore, CEL's head, said: "We need to re-examine our concept of leadership across the sector, and to challenge the older notions that are not appropriate for the 21st century.

"We are still suffering from the macho-management style of the early 1990s, when the heroic and charismatic style of more ego-based leadership was prevalent.

"There is a very strong need for exploring and redefining leadership, to develop leadership so it is located throughout the organisation, and not just resting with the chief executive and the senior management team."

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