Author and teacher Linda Kohanov is a master of “the way of the horse,” an experiential wisdom gained by studying the nonpredatory power of horses. In The Five Roles of a Master Herder: A Revolutionary Model for Socially Intelligent Leadership (now available in paperback), she adapts these horse-inspired insights into useful tools for developing collaborative leadership and managing change. “Master Herders” of nomadic herding cultures developed a multifaceted, socially intelligent form of leadership combining the five roles of Dominant, Leader, Sentinel, Nurturer/Companion, and Predator. The fluid interplay of these roles allowed interspecies communities to move across vast landscapes, dealing with predators and changing climates, protecting and nurturing the herd while keeping massive, gregarious, often-aggressive animals together — without the benefit of fences and with very little reliance on restraints.
We hope you’ll enjoy this excerpt from The Five Roles of a Master Herder, focusing on the role of Leader and how to use it in a productive and powerful way in the workplace as well as greater communities.
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Several years ago, I adopted three young mares from a local horse rescue. Leyla, a brown-and-white paint with striking blue eyes, walked right up to me the day we met, while Brandi, a chestnut with a flaxen mane and tail, watched from a safe distance. Feisty little Savannah — a delicate, spirited buckskin — also kept her distance, though her gaze seemed more suspicious than shy.
When bringing new horses onto the property, I always keep them separate for a couple of weeks to make sure they aren’t carrying any communicable diseases. But since Leyla, Brandi, and Savannah had already been living together with a large group of mares at the Equine Voices rescue center, I turned them out together in a half-acre corral away from the rest of my herd. Within a matter of weeks, I couldn’t believe my good fortune. In observing the already well-established dynamics of this trio, I realized that I had somehow managed to acquire a mini-herd whose members exemplified the differences between the Leader, the Dominant, and the Nurturer/Companion, with all three trading the Sentinel role as needed.
A Leader in the Making
Among horses and other large herbivores, certain individuals exhibit poise in the midst of change and even outright attraction to anything new in the landscape. While other herd members avoid the unfamiliar, a leader in the making will employ appropriate yet short-lived caution, slowly moving toward the unconventional object with a confidence and curiosity others find contagious. Without any overt ambition, these mavericks become leaders because others choose to follow them.
While both the Leader and the Dominant employ active influence, the two roles are polar opposites in the execution of their power. The alpha uses a directive, pushing energy, driving others toward or away from something. A consummate protector, the Dominant tends to be skeptical of anything new and easily escalates to intimidation in the face of danger or resistance.
The Leader, on the other hand, radiates a compelling, pulling energy, drawing others forward, motivating the herd through inspiration and optimism, while sometimes taking risks to explore possibilities that others might never consider.
Unlike Dominants, who sometimes stir up trouble to gain influence, Leaders conserve energy for true emergencies. They tend to avoid interpersonal dramas and power plays in favor of examining some intriguing feature of the environment. While young horses like Leyla are susceptible to attacks from an adolescent Dominant like Savannah, mature herd Leaders become skilled at setting effective boundaries with aggressors — without trying to control others’ behavior.
Over time, horses gifted in this role add considerable life experience to the mix, gaining respect from mature Dominants in the process. Herd members rely on the Leader’s knowledge, courage, and judgment to guide them toward greener pastures and help them temper survival instincts to explore unconventional opportunities. In this respect, a Leader’s ability to assess the intentions of predators, herd members, and other species at a distance is crucial — or such an adventurous animal would be quickly taken out of the gene pool.
Characteristics of a Mature Human or Animal Leader
- Exhibits heightened knowledge of terrain, food and water sources, and predators.
- Calms and focuses others in tense or novel situations.
- Does not get involved in petty herd dramas.
- Sets effective boundaries with aggressors and Dominants and then goes “back to grazing.”
Toward the Dream
Human Leaders add creativity and, in some cases, advanced communication skills to the mix, resulting in some additional benefits and challenges. Like their equine counterparts, people with a talent for this role draw attention to opportunities in unfamiliar settings, as opposed to focusing on potential dangers. But two-legged Leaders take this impulse one colossal step further — they envision and manifest future possibilities. It is precisely during the manifestation phase that their leadership abilities emerge. Successfully rallying others to the cause is only the first step in managing the many challenges staff or constituents will face along the way.
A great Leader has the focus and endurance to motivate others through the uncomfortable realities of change. An immature human Leader is likely to emerge with a lofty vision that attracts others while lacking the multifaceted skills needed to keep people on task and negotiate the many technical and interpersonal difficulties that arise.
In challenging situations, Leaders seek innovative solutions as their Dominant counterparts try to enforce the status quo, sometimes resulting in power struggles that keep everyone in limbo. For this reason, great Leaders must have proficiency in the other roles to address the concerns of followers, stand up to dominant factions, and drive complacent herd members toward a dream that may have to be adapted to the needs of the community.
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The author of The Five Roles of a Master Herder and the bestseller The Tao of Equus, Linda Kohanov speaks and teaches internationally. She established Eponaquest Worldwide to explore the healing potential of working with horses and to offer programs on everything from emotional and social intelligence, leadership, stress reduction, and parenting to consensus building and mindfulness. She lives near Tucson, Arizona. Find out more about her work at masterherder.com.
We also invite you to view this video interview, in which Linda Kohanov explores the leadership roles emphasized by the Democrat and Republican parties, and explains why Donald Trump exemplifies the role of an immature Dominant.
Excerpted from the book The Five Roles of a Master Herder. Copyright © 2016 by Linda Kohanov.