Leadership under Pressure - by Don Jessop

Leadership under Pressure - by Don Jessop

January 07, 2020 3 Comments

Don Jessop

Imagine parking your car, then walking across a street with no traffic. You would find this task easy. Now imagine walking across the same street with heavy traffic. You would find this task slightly more daunting but with your patience and experience, you'd safely time your steps to reach your goal. Now imagine leading a resistant, reactive child across that same busy street. That's what I mean by leadership under pressure. And that is what it's like to train reactive horses in exciting environments.

Anybody can lead a horse through a tough situation when the horse has already been there and done that, or when the sun is shining and the horse is tired, but can you be a leader when the horse is losing his mind? How about when the horse is frustrated? How about when the horse freezes? Can you be calm, cool and collected when it matters most?

To help understand this kind of leadership, let's define leadership in terms that ensure we be more effective in tough situations.

A leader is not someone who is lucky, but someone who is gritty. A leader is not someone who is merely friendly, but someone who is fatherly, or motherly. Someone who loves regardless of condition, but is present and experienced enough to know where boundaries must be set. And smart enough to know there is a future that holds challenges yet undertaken, and in that light, will take steps to address potential future hazards.

A leader can handle the heat and if he or she can't... you will never know, unless they tell you, because a leader shows confidence even when there is none to enjoy. A leader trains his followers to handle the heat too. A leader is patient beyond normal, willing to persist and endure tedium like no one else. True leaders are inspiring to be around. You've probably met one or two. They make everything seem possible and sometimes they even make it look easy. You can learn to be a true leader too when you start to see that pressure situations are the exact, perfect training ground for you. They are everything you need to proceed.

Pressure situations are, and should be your perfect training ground. Don't shy away from them.

His story

Dave was a passionate, driven person, even as a teenager. That's about the time he got into horses and his goal was to be the best endurance rider in the big USA. But Dave's driven personality had its problems, especially when his horse didn't do what he wanted. That's when Dave became abusive. He'd lose his temper. Once I saw him get off his horse and kick him dozens of times before he got on again. Dave's horse could do anything he wanted. He'd jump the moon if he told him to, but he hated and feared people. Dave was NOT a leader in the father sense, he was a dictator and a slave driver. Not purposefully, I know Dave personally, but ignorantly. He never saw the horse for what he was. The horse was only a vehicle to help him win an award and possibly the recognition of his critical family.

Her story

When Kelly showed up, her horse came running to her. As rich as Kelly's relationship was, her horse, however, could not really do anything. Every time Kelly asked for something challenging, such as walking through a small stream of water, her horse would resist and Kelly would give up, often even get off, and turn back home. She figured her horse would eventually find her confidence with enough considerate love and time. Her ignorance was blissful but she was wrong of course. As the years progressed her horse regressed. The bond remained but the confidence waned until the day her horse died of old age. Kelly was NOT a leader in the mother sense, she was a noble friend to the end but never found the courage to support her horse under pressure situations.

In the middle

In the middle of these two stories lies a perfect, centered human being. Dave had clearly taken his authority too far and Kelly had clearly given too much away. True leaders learn from these lessons. They see the horse for what he/she is: A prey animal with the cognitive awareness and emotional fortitude of a four-year-old human child. They know the truth, that the horse did not choose to join the human race in games of entertainment, war, and work. But they also know the horse can benefit from playful human interactions and the security we offer. When a horse is calm and responsive the leader passively persists to get results, but when the horse becomes reactive or non-responsive, the leader stands strong and firm and patient and sometimes, even strict.

Remember the imagined scenario of crossing the street with an unruly child. A leader holds tight to that little hand in a moment of pressure. Dave would have beaten the child. Kelly would have turned away. But you would persist, show your confidence, connect with your heart to the experience of your follower and ask them to trust you. You would hold tight and guide with authority and clear boundaries, moment by moment, with a clear steady voice.

The funny thing is most parents are experts at leading a child across a busy street because the parental instinct is strong with our own species. Great leaders recognize this natural strength and bring it into the realm of horsemanship. In other words, leaders are good parents. They see their interaction with their followers and a special responsibility to guide, develop, and love their follower in a friendly yet sometimes, firm way.

The parent/child model of leadership is the most effective model when it comes to pressure situations. We can always debate which model works best under pressure because of the fact that there are many other good models, such as coach/athlete models, boss/employee models and so on... but without any doubt, the model that we all know better than any model in the world is the parent or guardian/child model, where the parent clearly demonstrates love, patience, understanding, and persistent leadership.

When the safety of the child is on the line, almost every parent, even novice parents, instinctual response is to shut down the threat and remove the child from the threat. If you're human, you have this instinct inside you, which means you too can be a leader under pressure. The only difference between great leaders and novice leaders then is not what they do to protect their followers but how they do it?

A great leader shows calmness, assertiveness, certainty, and love. A novice leader either doesn't have those qualities yet or has all those qualities but temporarily fails to demonstrate them. Under pressure, a novice leader will show frustration and fear. With practice, that frustration and fear will diminish, to be replaced by breathful calculations, quick footwork, and laser-sharp focus.

High-pressure situations are the training ground for this kind of leadership. Men and women who love horses but choose not to advance in their horsemanship, never develop their leadership in this way. They tend to become avoiders. It's true, they can still bond with a horse and go from point A to point B on a trail, but they never realize their own inner strength. I always encourage my students to take a step toward horse mastery because in doing so, they become leaders who can handle the pressure. They become people who can handle more than an unruly horse, they become people who can handle pressure in the real world.

The great thing about horse mastery is there are mapped out, easy to understand, steps. These steps take you from where you are to a level of mastery and leadership most people don't even know is possible. I see people do amazing things with horses, but what's even more amazing is how I see people who excel with horses become masters of their own destiny. These people learn people skills through the vehicle of a challenging horse. And you can count yourself among these great leaders too. All it takes... is acknowledging the leadership training ground called Horse Mastery, right outside your door and you get to engage in that training ground nearly any day of the week.

There are, of course, many training grounds, but if you're a horse lover, you have the gift of horses in your life. You get the lessons they can bring without flying across the country to a personal development seminar. What I'm asking you to do is simple. One: acknowledge your training grounds just outside your door. And two: get out there and take steps to advance your horsemanship because there's no sense settling when you could have everything you dream of at your fingertips. You could become the person you know inside as the best possible version of yourself. A true leader!

Take the challenge: 



3 Responses


January 12, 2020

Just the article I needed for inspiration today! Thank you for your thoughtful and informative article!

Jackie Wittman
Jackie Wittman

January 08, 2020

Such a timely article. We have started construction and leading my horse out of barn to arena was quite challenging. He was fearful and agitated at the sights and sounds of backhoes, delivery trucks and other vehicles. Good reminder to me to step up my leadership and look for the growth that these experiences will provide for him.

Sue Fanning
Sue Fanning

January 08, 2020

This is such a wonderful, insightful, well written article Don! Thanks for modeling all of those great leadership qualities!

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