What a story about horses taught me about leadership
A couple of years ago, I attended a conference in Toronto called the Archangel Summit. It was an event focused on entrepreneurship, leadership, and making a difference.
As a 30th birthday gift to me, my boyfriend got us tickets to the Saturday portion. It was a day of listening to keynote speakers like Seth Godin, Elizabeth Gilbert, and Lisa Nichols cover a wide range of topics, share their experiences, and tell their stories.
And that’s why I loved it.
I am an idea person and so is my boyfriend. We thrive on new ideas — on dreams and visions and possibilities. And this was a gathering of people interested in going for their dreams. Perfect.
Out of all the speakers, I was most excited to hear Elizabeth Gilbert speak.
She is one of my favourite writers, but she’s also much more than a great writer to me. She’s someone I aspire to be like; a kind of role model. She’s an intelligent, strong, courageous, and independent woman — all traits I admire and hope to emulate in my own life and work.
But the thing that I find so fascinating about her is that she achieves all of those things in an incredibly human way.
Her strength and power comes from her ability and her willingness to be raw, to be real, to be vulnerable, and to show the world her authentic self — even when it’s not all perfect and put together.
She recognizes that being human is a messy business, and instead of hiding the messy parts, she writes about them. It takes great courage to let people see your imperfections, and she does it both powerfully and beautifully.
That’s why when she speaks, I listen.
When she came on stage, I could barely believe this was really happening.
It didn’t take long to become engrossed in the story she was telling, and I was all ears. I didn’t want to miss a thing, jotting notes down in my little notebook every time I heard something interesting.
And interesting, it was.
She told a story that day about something she’d learned about horses. At first, I wondered what exactly horses and their hierarchies had to do with leadership or entrepreneurship, but it soon became clear.
She talked about the alpha mare of the herd being the leader. She’s at the top of the hierarchy within the herd, and all the other horses look to her for guidance and reassurance. As long as she remains calm, the rest of the herd feels calm and safe.
The thing is, the alpha mare is always calm.
This is because she knows who she is and has set appropriate boundaries.
“Her demeanor is maternal, but her justice is swift and sure,” writes John Strassburger in an article titled “Effective Training Means Being Like the Alpha Mare.”
He goes on to say, “She neither shrinks from her duty to keep order, nor does she continue to arbitrarily punish the rule breakers by chasing or harassing them when they’re doing right. And because she is swift, strong AND fair, her fellow herd mates live in peace and happiness. They follow her lead, and they trust her judgement.”
The alpha mare knows what to do in any situation because she acts out of integrity and a sense of inner connectedness.
So what if inner integrity is the real key to successful leadership?
We often think of leaders as the boldest, loudest, most outspoken, most daring among us. We tend to believe that only those who are comfortable being in the spotlight can make good leaders.
But in a herd of horses, the alpha mare is the one who is the most relaxed.
She’s done the hard work of finding herself, of figuring out where she stands, how she relates to the world and others, and she now knows her place. From that place of certainty about herself and her worth — and only from that place — can she effectively lead others.
Until you learn how to hold appropriate boundaries, and stand in integrity, and speak your truth, you will never have a relaxed moment in your life. You will live like a fugitive, always on the run, always hiding, always afraid of being exposed. — Elizabeth Gilbert
If we are to lead effectively, we have to learn to lead in this way.
We have to be like the alpha mare — strong and sure, but also caring and fair. We have to know who we are and what we stand for; and also what we won’t stand for, and then we have to act in alignment with those values.
Only by doing that can we be at ease with ourselves; and when we’re at ease within ourselves, others can be at ease too.
It all comes down to being true to ourselves, and being brave enough to let the world see that truth.
This isn’t easy, and that’s why I’m constantly looking to others to serve as examples in my own journey toward setting healthy boundaries and finding my place in the world.
Elizabeth Gilbert has been one of those people for me. I constantly learn from her willingness to be open about her own growth and process of discovery. Her understanding and acceptance of herself gives off an aura of confidence and calmness that I think helps others feel at ease, too.
You could say, perhaps, that she’s an alpha mare.
No wonder people listen.