Sixteen students from the Executive MBA and Evening & Weekend MBA programs headed far outside the classroom—to the paddock—to practice non-verbal leadership.
The setting for the two-day Leading Others Through Natural Leadership course was Devito’s Equestrian Center in Walnut Creek. Students had the chance to apply personal leadership challenges to on-the-ground work with horses.
“Horses create a ‘zero-base,’ because very few people know intuitively how to work with them,” says Lecturer Whitney Hischier, a lifelong rider who created the course. “Horses provide honest, accurate feedback in real time. They respond instantly and without judgment to our intent, our energy and our behavior.”
Horses have become increasingly popular in medical teaching: they’ve been used to teach bedside manners to future doctors at Stanford Medical School, to assist nurses with work-related stress and burnout at Brigham Young, and to treat conditions such as autism, Hischier says. In the field of leadership development, working with horses is a growing niche.
The one-unit course also included traditional classroom instruction. Students were asked to come prepared with an aspect of leadership they are grappling with, including a current or recent real-life situation—such as leading and motivating an inherited and disenfranchised team. After spending time on theory and role play, they headed to the paddocks for “real play.”
“Horses cannot role play. They can only real play,” says Lecturer Rajiv Ball, of Haas and the Amsterdam School of Creative Leadership, one of the course instructors. “If you want a horse to follow you, you need to real play your leadership.”
In addition to Hischier and Ball, the course was co-taught by Professor Dana Carney, who holds a joint appointment at Haas and the Psychology Department and specializes in psychological and physiological connections between body and mind. Nanna Notthoff, a postdoctoral Scholar at UC Berkeley’s Institute of Personality and Social Research and an experienced equestrian, also assisted with instruction.