An Out-of-the-Box Approach to Leadership Development

by: Amy Simmons

Not long ago, I had the opportunity to learn from a new and unique teacher—one that made me reconsider everything I thought I knew about leadership and change my approach for the better. But it wasn’t an executive coach, nor an industry expert. That teacher happened to be a horse.

In early 2020, I left my desk behind to spend a day with an equine leadership organization. There, I watched the lead horse corral a team of horses not from the front, but from behind. The horse took a servant-leadership approach, providing support and energy from the back of the group to make progress.

Later, I was tasked with putting what I’d learned to work by leading a horse through an obstacle course. We began walking, but soon the horse started to trot, then canter—and I got nervous.

I’d been taught how to stop a horse, but not how to slow one down, and in the moment, the lack of information and rapidly increasing pace clouded my consciousness. I took a step in front of the horse as it lumbered forward, attempting to slow it down.

Thankfully, the instructor intervened, bringing the horse to a halt with a single command.

“Did you really think that would work?” he asked, looking at me quizzically.

I shook my head, and right then, my mind flashed to my team. I thought of how often I got in front of them in an attempt to course correct, and inadvertently prevented them from tapping into their full potential in the process. Suddenly I understood the full power of servant leadership, of providing support from behind.

The experience served as a paradigm shift for me. I took that lesson home, back to the familiar surroundings of my work life. I shared the story with my team, and then I began to take what I’d learned to heart. I started giving them opportunities they wouldn’t have had before—tasks I simply would have taken on myself. I worked to incorporate more coaching and mentoring into my approach, to truly lead from behind.

From there, I mapped the lesson onto other domains of my existence—parenting, partnership, and more. And I continue to reflect on how valuable it can be to take the steps to get out of your comfort zone and out of your own way—and that of others—to evoke growth and change.

That is the magic of curated liminality—of launching your own transformative experiences to catalyze growth—and you can read about it in our book, Unleashed: Harnessing the Power of Liminal Space, from ForbesBooks. You’ll find more on the book and its insights here.