Brenda Smith: Every Farm and Every Community Needs a Team

The tie between relationships and leadership doesn’t just apply to working with horses. On reflection, these lessons are very much a part of being a member of a community.

Current director of High Desert Partnership, a nonprofit organization in Harney County, Oregon that seeks to find common ground through collaboration.

How to maximize horsepower in your community

Photo courtesy of Brenda Smith.

In the last month I have been part of several conversations about leadership, diversity, equity and inclusivity in rural communities. Unpacking all those conversations in one blog post is not easy. Still, it’s important to point out these conversations are happening. In fact, as a person whose business is supporting diverse groups as they work together to find common ground, I can assure you these conversations are happening quite often in rural areas. They’ve impacted me in several ways, including sparking this entry. To be more specific, one question that popped up during these conversations spurred me to write…that question was “What does it take to be a collaborative leader in a rural area like Harney County?”.

The answer depends on how you define what it means to be a leader. Here’s a definition of leadership I’ve heard: leadership is the act of showing someone the way to a destination by either going in front of them or beside them. This type of leadership implies the destination is known, that we know something about the person being led and that we're committed to walking in front of them or beside them. For me, this approach to leadership is also about meeting a person where they are versus asking or telling them to meet me where I want them to be. It's about a journey being taken together.

Leadership, as taught by horses

Writing about leadership made me realize my perceptions around leadership were formed behind (literally behind) a team of Belgian draft horses, Rudy and Sparky. Here is where my rural upbringing comes into the mix. Horses have been a part of most of my life, getting my first horse when I was 12 years old. 

For many years I had saddle horses, but it wasn’t until we started a family farm that draft horses (you know, the Budweiser Clydesdale type horses, except the farm version) came into my life. Life on a farm will quickly teach you that horsepower is a real thing. That power can be productive or unchecked and, in some cases, dangerous. The sooner that power is recognized and respected, life with horses will be much more comfortable as well as rewarding and productive. With a saddle horse, you know that building trusting relationships is paramount. Being “on” or riding a horse gives most horsey folks a sense of some control over the situation even if the horse and rider relationship is not fully built. There’s a difference when it comes to draft horses.

Photo courtesy of Brenda Smith.

Working with Rudy and Sparky was a whole new situation and this is when I really learned about leadership through teamwork. Imagine the scene: Rudy and Sparky each about one ton—two tons total of horses, and the so-called leader, me, standing behind them with two lines (reins) attached to their harness and bridle.

In terms of power, this is a lopsided team. If either Rudy or Sparky choose, they can do anything they want. They have all the power. But leadership is about directing the power of all team members into a shared action. So, how do we do all this together?

For me it was two things. The first was listening - listening a lot and taking subtle cues from each animal individually. They may be harnessed together but if the whole team (teamster included) is not working together there is no “harnessing the power” of all. My second lesson: humility is critical. Remember, the horses can do anything at any time if they choose…and, if we haven't done the work together to build a solid, trusting relationship, they will!

Leadership is distinct from power

In my life with draft horses, I'm physically behind the horses leading, but we're working together. Relationships are built with consistent, clear messages and listening back to see if the message is received and responding in-kind that the message was received. Once relationships are built, respect is formed and there is a learned appreciation among all the members of the team. Finally, there is the chance to reciprocate with a give and take approach. It’s at this point — driving a team and supporting from behind — that the real work can be done.

The tie between relationships and leadership doesn’t just apply to working with horses. On reflection, these lessons are very much a part of being a member of a community and supporting a community in collaborative problem solving. Leading is each of us meeting each other where we are and recognizing we're on a journey being taken together. The next time you hear someone say “I am taking over the reins,” just think about holding those reins behind a team of draft horses. There is a lot of groundwork that needs to be laid to harness the horsepower. Get ready to listen. Stay humble.

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