Saddle sore Featured

12:11pm EDT October 30, 2001
Pockets just casually looked up at me as I swaggered over to him like a pro. I was a cowboy now, after all, complete with my new Australian Outback-style hat and the confidence of a Wild West range rover. And Pockets was just a big horse.

Only a week before, I'd attended a leadership development program put on by Shared Vision Alliance (see this month's cover feature) that used horses to demonstrate the most effective ways to approach and lead people. Using what I had learned, I walked toward Pockets in a roundabout way, not aiming my rather stocky frame right at his face.

I then called to him calmly as I petted him and scratched his back at the tip of his mane. I even scratched under his chin as I talked to him like a 3-year-old child. I could tell he liked me, so I placed my left foot in the stirrup and climbed into the saddle.

Taking the reins, I nudged him with my right heel, and we slowly clip-clopped out of the corral. So far so good, I reasoned, proud that I had remembered my recent horse training. And now I, the 21st century Horse Whisperer, was heading for the vast rolling hills of my cousin's farm in Ohio.

I had just ventured outside the corral when I decided it was time to lead Pockets in a joyful run for the hills. So I clicked my tongue, gave him a good nudge and aimed my head and body toward a far hillside. That's when my leadership ability, shall I say, faltered.

Pockets had other plans. While he obeyed my command to run, he wasn't interested in that distant hill. Setting his sights back on the corral, he lunged 180 degrees to the right, while I leaned about 90 degrees to the left. As he began to run, my saddle slipped, and I found myself riding horizontal to the ground, gripping the saddle horn for dear life. Not exactly a John Wayne movie, I figured, as I felt my body wrench and my panicked mind fill with humiliation.

For the next several days, I hobbled slowly around my office, nursing a pulled right calf muscle and other saddle sores. But it also gave me a chance to think about what I'd learned. Obviously, that single lesson in leadership wasn't enough to make me an expert. Only experience -- and many more hard knocks along the way -- would carry me boldly into the distant hills.

The same holds true for learning good leadership. I applaud those of you who take the time to step out of the trenches of your businesses to re-energize or develop your leadership abilities. And I would encourage you to attend seminars, retreats and even an Equine Business Experience or two. You'll learn a lot.

But make no mistake. You may come out of those courses swaggering like a newborn leader, and your confidence may make you appear like a strong, wise, visionary guide. But nothing will get you to where you're going without some good, old-fashioned practice and hard-knock experience.

One trip in the saddle won't suddenly make you Leader of the Year. Nor will one leadership course. It's a life-long challenge for which you should be prepared to invest your heart and soul, over and over and over again. And expect some saddle sores along the way.

I did manage to ride into the hills that day in spite of my early accident, and the view of my cousin's 200-plus acre farm was worth the effort. But perhaps my greatest gift was when I rode back into the corral at the end of my ride. As I dismounted and walked toward the gate, Pockets lifted his head and followed me.

For I was a leader, indeed. How to reach: Daniel Bates (dbates@sbnnet.com) is editor of SBN Magazine.