By Rebecca Skilton
Whether in the board room or the round yard, facing a team of 600 or a 600 kilogram horse, wearing high heels or cowboy boots, understanding emotional intelligence and its importance is a key element to any leader’s success.
No one knows this better than partner at Pitcher Partners Accounting firm, Vicki Macdermid.
First joining the Pitcher Partner team in 1994, the Pakenham South accountant has an extensive and experienced career in the professional service and corporate world.
In 2014, Vicki completed an Applied Masters of Entrepreneurship offered through Pitcher Partners International Institute of Entrepreneurship (IIE) in collaboration with Swinburne University of Technology.
Vicki completed the course with her research paper titled What Horses Teach Us About Leadership – At an Emotional and Spiritual Level.
Designed ‘to accelerate entrepreneurial thinking within professional service firms and middle market clients’, Pitcher Partners describes the IIE program as delivering ‘the tools necessary to leverage the potential (for) staff to become world-class leaders with profound expertise and real-world practical advisory skills’.
“When we had to choose our topics for the research paper I was struggling with how (horses) could be innovative and how they could fit within the parameters of what the paper needed to be.
“I explained my idea to the professor and he said that’s a very innovative approach to leadership … I was so happy,” Vicki said.
“I thought I knew some stuff about horses and leadership, but doing the Masters and having to do a research paper made me look at it much more deeply and broadly, and I learnt so much more from researching it in different ways, it was amazing.”
Discussing theories such as Daniel Goleman’s framework of emotional intelligence, Vicki’s paper used the context of a loose horse in a round yard to explore five areas that are paramount to the success of a leader: self-awareness, self-regulation, motivation, empathy and social skill.
To successfully become the horse’s leader and effectively ask it to work on command, Vicki examined how the individual standing in the middle of the round yard must acknowledge and maintain Goleman’s five emotional competencies.
The individual must also prove themselves a worthy leader, earn the horse’s respect by showing they can be trusted, have clear intentions and must always be aware that the horse will challenge the person’s leadership.
“Someone could go into the round yard with all guns blazing and the horse is going to give them what they want, but not willingly,” Vicki said.
“And is that really what you want from a team member? Don’t you want willingness and team participation?”
Acknowledging that the same results could potentially be found in a canine, Vicki believes that a horse’s herd nature, sheer size and the fact that they are ‘prey of all and predator to none’ is part of the reason why horses have such a profound impact on leadership skills.
Throughout her paper, Vicki discusses this notion, drawing on ideas of Lyn Shirley who has worked with horses to assist troubled youth.
“Due to their sensitive and intuitive natures, horses are innately able to detect anger, aggression, hostility and anxiety,” Lyn noted.
“In order to establish a positive relationship with a horse, the individual must learn to regulate internal feelings and external behaviours. The degree of control exerted will determine the success of the horse-human relationship”.
Following the success of her research paper, Vicki now presents her findings to leadership seminars, university classes, and to large corporations such as Qantas.
While many of her presentations take place within office walls, Vicki also conducts hands-on sessions where leaders are invited to step into the round yard and become the leader of a 600 kilogram animal that they are not acquainted with.
For some leaders, Vicki’s presentations and sessions are a vital learning curve in how they conduct themselves and approach leading their own very human staff.
“Some people are so emotionally moved after the sessions,” Vicki said.
“If they go into the round yard with an expectation of an outcome and they don’t achieve it, they can be disappointed, and then they start reflecting on why that is.
“They think things like, was my messaging not sufficient, did I not have the confidence to get the result I wanted, did I not ask well or clear enough, did I invest myself well enough to get what I wanted?
“But one of the comments that was made after a presentation was by a woman who came up to me and said ‘I need to start treating my people like animals’ which is normally the wrong thing to say – it’s the opposite normally.
“But she said ‘I’m better to the animals than I am to the people!’”
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