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Sterling the 'stang

How taming a wild horse taught me
to lead a team

After backing a feral animal off a trailer in the dark, in a place unfamiliar to her, I quickly realized this animal was nothing like the domestic pasture pets I grew up riding. 



 



 

She was like a pterodactyl with hooves. 

Don’t fixate on bad outcomes

The moment Sterling taught me what she needed from me in order to be a team, I realized just how many areas of my life required the same. See, Sterling showed me that training horses comes down to two things… respect, and fairness.

I had to gain her respect without even being near her before I could ever ride her, and that doesn’t happen overnight. She had to watch my actions and my language with her to find out if I was worthy of respect, and she also taught me that respect has to go both ways for trust to exist. 

She also taught me to be fair- both to her, and to myself. Respect has to be reciprocal for trust to exist, and your fairness has to be consistent for that trust to stick around.

About three years ago, I adopted a wild mustang from the BLM and tamed her as a pet.

I must’ve been insane. 

lessons in business

She’d stand completely still, feet frozen in the ground while she took in everything, neck arched, eyes and ears intent on absorbing everything around her, and probably trying to understand what just happened to her life and what’s to come. (This poor horse was on a trailer for 4 days, and had already ping-ponged across the country from Oregon all the way to South Florida then back up to me.)

Then this insane animal would charge straight at me with zero warning, dodging my body and knocking through my shoulder as she blasted by. She would strike at me, rear up in my face, cow-kick me, and nearly took off my finger when I suggested I brush her shoulders off.

I couldn’t gain any ground with her until I gained her trust. My journey with this animal started with sitting out in the field with a book while she grazed 20 feet away, refusing to be caught, and is now at a place where she’ll happily walk over and lay down next to me while I read.

So how do these little life lessons apply to leadership?

It took me a while to learn how to rely on others to get the job done. I was so afraid of making a wrong move financially that it prevented me from moving forward. My real issue wasn’t a money mindset issue, it was a respect issue. I think as managers and leaders, we tend to jump on trust before we establish respect… which usually won’t be lent to you until you extend it first.

This isn’t a blog about making your team respect you.. this is about respecting and creating fairness to your team. Making employees feel safe is the most important thing to creating respect in your company, and I think companies are so CFO-focused that they forget to be CEO-focused (retention saves you more in the end). 

I spotted a difference while taming Sterling - the difference was that humans, are wildly inefficient… no matter the tool! 

We’re the only animals who will repeat an action we know won’t work, because we tend to value pride over survival. 

Horses don’t think that way - I’d argue they never try the same thing twice if they don’t find relief on the first try.

Boss, not partner

This was something that was the same… There can only be one leader. With Sterling, it was either her or me, and we could work as a team, but only if I’m the leader. No amount of hard work on her part means that she gets to be the leader that day, or that we are equal parts of the same team. If we both had the same amount of decision-making power, we ran into fences.. ouch. 

And while I want to hear her suggestions (after all, she’s keenly aware of things I can’t be), I steer us in the direction we need to go, because I have context (Bad footing ahead, spooky river, etc). 

Don’t get me wrong, my team has all the freedom in the world to bring new ideas to the table (Same with Sterling. you’ll notice I don’t use ropes or a bit to force her to do anything she doesn’t want to do). The point is, their knowledge of the micro is invaluable to me, while my handle on the macro stuff protects them. They can choose to move with me or away from me, but not both.

In moments when I’ve allowed myself to slip into partner status in the studio, we lack synergy, productivity, and communication because everyone takes their own agenda, and accidents happen. 

“Make the wrong thing hard and the right thing easy”

If she’s doing what I ask her to, then I’m going to make that option easy on her. If she decides she wants to take off running with me, I decide that she’s going to have to do so while maintaining a nice, tight circle (this is a very exhausting exercise). 

We both know that working harder doesn’t equal success. So why sell that lie to your team? Instead of making the right thing hard, teach your team how to hack their job WELL. This does more for your company culture and your P&L’s than hard work will. 

If something about your process isn’t working for your team, you’re only exasperating your troops. Making it easy to do the job right means you’ll be more profitable, and your team will respect you more because of that fairness you provided them.

Whatever you’re looking for, you will find it. When I was saddle training Sterling, I somehow painted the picture in my head that the moment we took off at a canter, she would start bucking or she would run away with me. So when I finally asked her to canter, I unintentionally created a pressure cooker… she could sense that I was holding back from letting her canter, so she began believing that something bad happens if I let her, hence when I finally let her run, everything I pictured in my head happened. I was sore for weeks.

It’s sort of like white-water rafting. If the river guide points at the rock and says “Whatever you do, don’t paddle towards that rock over there,” your team can’t help but look at the rock while they paddle, and BAM… you’re gonna get wet.

What you focus on, you create more of - that’s why negative people only ever seem to find more problems.

SWAK Photography took these timeless photos & I’m forever grateful to Carrie for them.
SWAK Photography took these timeless photos & I’m forever grateful to Carrie for them.

With my team, if I focus on the problems with their work, somehow all I’ll ever find is more quality problems. Instead of being upset over some merch sewn incorrectly, I take a moment to add a paragraph into an email I sent to my team about one anonymous stitcher’s work being incredible, and that I was over the moon about it… we don’t have quality issues that often anymore. I chose to focus on the good, in order to provide a positive focus for more successful work.

They can tell when you aren’t confident in your decisions

Most of all, taming Sterling taught me to lead fearlessly - regardless of how much clarity I had in my decision. If I wasn’t confident, then when I looked behind me, she was gone. 

It’s insane how they just know - and the funny thing is, it could be something as insignificant as looking at my phone while leading her somewhere. Horses require confident leaders, and anything less than your full attention will have them ignoring you and doing their own thing.  

In leading a team, there are A LOT of “OH SH**” moments where you don’t know what the outcome will be, but you can’t lead based on potential outcomes. You have to move confidently and unsubscribe to your fear - otherwise, when you look back, your troops won’t be there behind you. Horses leave and find a new leader - one who can confidently decide what direction the herd should move in.  

Following a leader who either sucks at leading or doesn’t truly care what happens to their troops is lame - no one wants to work for that guy. With Sterling, and my team, I had to unlearn fear in terms of making team-wide decisions before I could move forward with confidence.

If you run a team too, I’d love to know if this helped you think differently about how you support and care for your team!

Follow along with our wild mustang adventures by searching the Instagram hashtag: 

#sterlingthestang

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Sterling the 'stang