05/24/2011 03:05 pm ET | Updated Jul 24, 2011

Why Talk to Oxford University When You Can Whisper to a Horse?

"I enjoyed working with you. The best experiential sessions are always fragile affairs, and not for everybody, but when they do connect with participants they are much more powerful than anything else on offer. Your work with horses is a great example of this approach in action, and I am well aware of the creative energy, persistence and hard work involved in developing such a session."
-- Dr. Marshall Young, Fellow and Programme Director, Oxford University Said Business School.


Personal and cultural belief systems create wonderful modes of self expression, but they also hamper progress towards peaceful coexistence and outstanding achievement.

Skilful facilitation of horse whispering interactions rapidly gets straight to the essence of what works in relationships and cultures. It cuts through the games and defences of egos and worn out traditions -- it liberates our true selves and our greatest cultural possibilities.

Last year Oxford University, Said Business School asked us to run a couple of special modules for their prestigious international leadership programmes. I was flattered when they billed the events after the title of my book: "Why talk to a guru? When you can whisper to a horse."

Our first (half) day was part of a programme sponsored by the Archbishop Tutu Foundation: The Association for African Leaders. Twenty six men and women in all manner of culturally inspired garb assembled with everything from fascination to intrepidation to be introduced to myself, my wife Geri and two of our beautiful horses -- Ollie and Serendipity.

There was one person more concerned about the outcome than all the others put together. One person faced with a Churchillian leadership challenge -- me!

How can so much be given to so many by so few?

Since ploughing the first furrow in what is now the growing field of "Horse Assisted Education" nearly twenty years ago, we have held steadfastly to a transformational approach to learning and growth. Improvement was for the amateurs -- we go for major breakthroughs and paradigm shifts that really take clients to new levels of self awareness and success.

I usually spend a whole day one-to-one with a client. Even with two horses and two facilitators there was only enough time for 10 minutes each.

At the very heart of our work sit what I call "The seven questions of natural leadership." Outside the context of a lot of introduction, goal-setting, rapport-building and deep personal understanding of what the client needs, they can seem more than a little daunting. They are not the sort of questions we might relish over breakfast. They are important. They are powerful. I share them with you advisedly:

1. Who are you afraid you are?
2. Who do you pretend to be?
3. How do you seem to gain from this?
4. What does it cost you?
5. Who are you really?
6. What do you really want?
7. How could you be more true to yourself?

The process we have honed over the years into a cutting edge leadership tool works as a metaphor for an important relationship you choose to work with. As individual "comfort zones" expand, so do "culture zones." Bottom line: When we are coming from fear or self doubt in our communication -- however subtle or unconscious, a horse cannot allow us to be his leader. He may resist, run away or challenge but he will not follow us. When we are being authentic -- he will.

In this way clients get what most people, most of the time avoid like the herpes -- ruthlessly honest feedback. We avoid giving and receiving honest feedback because our greatest fear is that the lies we believe about ourselves are true.

To be an effective leader, as opposed to a petty tyrant, we must learn not only to deliver feedback non-judgementally, but also to receive it neutrally as information. Nothing new there. But even skilled, experienced leaders and facilitators can be profoundly challenged by the compulsive need our egos have to make judgements.

Not horses. They do not judge because they cannot. They have no ego. Either they trust, respect and understand us or they don't. In this way they teach us both how we judge, how we use excess force, how we pretend to be nice -- and then how to have clear intention. When our intention is clear to build a relationship on trust, horses follow us, relationships, cultures and results transform. It's that simple.

One of the phenomena of Horse Assisted Transformation ("The HAT thing," as Marshall Young, glibly called my life's work) is how much more willing clients are to take direct feedback from a horse than from a human. Something in us knows they have no personal agenda and makes us more open and receptive to the innocence of their responses. It's like being with a child. We'll joyfully take ruthlessly honest feedback from a child when the same from an adult would make us defensive.

To stretch the time, we asked the delegates to do a lot of the heavy lifting. They were already in an exquisitely designed and facilitated process lasting two amazing weeks. If we could just lob in something to jolt their attention inwards to reflect on a greater truth within, we would leave them with a lasting memory and reference point for breaking through personal and cultural barriers.

We pared the seven questions down to two. For me -- quite a letting go:

1. Who do you pretend to be?
2. Who are you really?

We paired the guys up with buddies. We had them reflect on these two questions before, during and after they worked with the horses. Those guys achieved the impossible. Every single one of the 26 got a nugget of gold to add to their collection from the programme.

Geri and I were exhausted in that blissfully satisfied way. Ollie and Serendipity cantered playfully round the lush, green Oxfordshire paddock rather than come home in the trailer.

Having introduced you to the "seven questions," I would like to explore them all in more depth over the upcoming weeks.

Feel free to ask them of yourself and give me your honest feedback, questions, suggestions.

My website is worth a detour -- especially the films.