Look to the Herd, Part 2: Shared Leadership

  • horses in a pasture
    April 21, 2020

    We were watching our herd of three mares recently from a distance. All three were grazing peacefully in the pasture. One mare, named Doll, was standing separate from the other two. At one point, she raised her head high with her ears and eyes in an alert position when she noticed someone walking down the road on the outside of the pasture fence. She then began to prance around a little with her eyes fixed on this unfamiliar human that was a little too close to her pasture. Suddenly, with a flick of Doll’s ear and a swish of her tail, all three were running from the pasture back to their shed and paddock safe space. Doll was demonstrating leadership, protecting the rest of the herd from what she perceived as a potential threat.

    Horses work together as a herd to keep each other safe from predators. Like humans, they are social animals that form a hierarchy within the herd. In the wild, stallions are the protectors of the herd, always on the lookout for danger. Among the mares, there is typically a lead, or “alpha” mare that determines movement of the herd. A recent study, however, indicates that all mares participate in determining movement of the herd (https://equusmagazine.com/horse-world/busting-lead-mare-myth-25407). The study also observed that stallions tend to lead from behind with a herding behavior, while mares tend to lead with a break-away behavior, where one steps away and the others follow – great metaphors for different styles of leadership.

    What can we, as humans, learn from these horses? Horse herds practice shared leadership as part of their survival, where every horse is involved in the protection and movement of the herd.

    It is during a crisis, such as the one we are currently experiencing with the coronavirus pandemic, when we can see more clearly that leadership does not always depend on your title. Everyone can be a leader, no matter where you stand in the human herd hierarchy at home or at work – a concept long promoted by John Maxwell in his book, The 360 Degree Leader. True leadership has more to do with your character than your title. As described by General James, USA (ret.) L. Anderson and Dave Anderson in Becoming a Leader of Character: 6 Habits That Make or Break a Leader at Work and at Home, leadership at any level is founded on developing the habits of courage, humility, integrity, selflessness, duty, and positivity.

    We are now witnessing the best of shared, character-based leadership every day. We see our titled leaders on TV, providing the guidance and support needed to fight the pandemic. But we also see regular citizens stepping into leadership roles to protect others:

    • Medical and emergency professionals risking their own lives to help victims of covid-19;
    • People giving their time, money, and talents to help those less fortunate;
    • K-12 teachers braving the abrupt new world of distance learning;
    • Parents juggling remote work and home schooling;
    • Communities raising the spirits of 2020 high school graduates who will not have the chance to celebrate a major academic accomplishment in the same way that most of us have;
    • Business owners finding creative, new ways to serve their communities;
    • Clergy live-streaming religious services to keep congregations safe; and
    • Farm workers, grocery store workers, postal workers, delivery drivers, cleaning crews – the list of people showing leadership during this crisis goes on and on, including citizens staying home and practicing social distancing.

    Every day in the news, we hear stories of ordinary people in our communities accomplishing incredible tasks. Some people are leading from behind, motivating others to work together in the development of innovative ideas to ease the pain of the pandemic. Other people are leading out front, putting their own creative ideas on the line and influencing others to follow. No matter the leadership style, we are witnessing humanity at its best. Shared leadership has helped horses survive for millions of years. If we continue to look to the herd and follow their example of cooperation and selflessness for group survival, we – as a human herd – will also make it successfully through this devastating, world-wide pandemic.

    Stay tuned for our next blog, Look to the Herd – Part 3: Living in the Moment.

    Susan and Joseph Urban

    Dashing W Farm

    (Based on a presentation by Susan and Joseph Urban entitled Workplace Dynamics in the Age of Social Media: What We Can Learn from a Herd of Horses).


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