Vintage Management: On the trail of systemic leadership – with a horse whisperer

With the knowledge society came a breakthrough: For many years management was preoccupied with models that are designed for managing knowledge workers who need creative freedom and scope for experimental design in order to work effectively. Rigid top-down orders and instructions that are inscribed in stone, such as we used to issue in the last century, are frequently totally out of place – and are not accepted, especially not by Gen Y. So I was always convinced that it was just management style that had to change in line with this situation. But then I met a horse whisperer – and I soon saw interesting parallels between horse training and the predominant management models that made me rethink.


From mechanical leadership to systemic leadership

If you get a young horse, you have to break it in. To steer it, you put on reins: The horse gives way to the pressure and moves in the direction in which you turn the head. If you want to stop you pull back on the bit. To make the horse walk on or break into a trot or gallop, you use your legs or a crop. All in all, this is an extremely mechanical form of leadership and more or less the top-down principle as applied to horses.

However, as I learned from said horse whisperer, there is now a new movement in equitation: Rider and horse are considered as a harmonious unit. The idea is that the horse really wants to follow the orders of the rider and doesn’t need to be forced by painful means. Now I can totally relate to this insight as applied to company leadership. The organization and employee as a harmonious unit – a development that leads on a straight path to retention, performance-oriented pay and systemic leadership.


Groundbreaking insight or a return to old principles?

However, contrary to many expert opinions, I do not believe that this trend is a novel breakthrough. It’s a return to something we always knew. In my opinion, the mechanical steering of people and animals is an anomaly, something that belongs to the last century. We have focused  largely on technological perspectives – also as a result of manifold new achievements in that sphere, such as conveyor belt production, for instance. These technological innovations climaxed in scientific management, whereby people are ordered about in a mechanical style. This has resulted in enormous technological progress and great prosperity in the industrial nations, but also in a neglect of the unique success factor: the individual.

It’s people who make a difference. Only if they are involved in strategic decisions will they contribute the maximum to the success of the company. Because they are closer to the market and to the customers and thus they frequently know more about what the next Big Thing will be. But this return to old wisdom, going back to the individual strengths of the employees, is nothing new – it is much more the result of waning focus on technology and of advancing digitalization. Digital natives are familiar with multi-dimensional communication channels, they live in them and demand them in their everyday lives at work. Thus we have today more and more opportunities in companies to involve employees fast and simply and to benefit from their specialized knowledge. This is a winning combination for me: Old humanitarian values mixed with new technology for sustainable company success.


Do you feel in your organization that you are returning to these old approaches? What changes have you experienced in your everyday work?


Photo Credit: Bethany Legg via Unsplash

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