Beyond Carrots

An acute lesson in subconscious body language, a mirror was held up to me like I’d never experienced before during the summer of 2014. As part of an equine assisted leadership development training course, I was introduced to my horse Merlin. Knowing little about what the day would present, or about horses, Merlin was to become one of the most commanding teachers I’ve ever come across.

Having never been in the presence of horses before, I was totally struck by the presence and aura of this half ton creature. I could sense that Merlin could sense me, my every move, my instincts, and even my mood, from the outset. I felt an immediate strong ‘human’ connection with Merlin. The connection was totally on an emotional level, one that I was completely surprised at. They say good people bring the best out of us. I felt that Merlin’s presence was going to draw the best out in me, somehow.

The task of the day was fairly straightforward, to encourage our horses, Merlin in my case, through a series of gates and into a pound in the centre of the stables. Simple enough, we all thought, a class of 30 budding next generation leaders. What could be so difficult?

A basic leadership team challenge that I’d encountered before in typical corporate bonding days away, and while exactly relatable to the day job of leading high performing individuals and teams, this was a little different. The team in this case was represented by, as I mentioned, a half-ton creature, impressive, high performing, intelligent and formidable, and me. How was I to going to gain and build trust in Merlin, for me to be able to influence and encourage him for mutual benefit? There were no carrots! (and please forgive me for making the parallels in advance!). This was not going to be a transactional leadership engagement based on any reward system. This was going to require us both to be at one with each other, building trust in one another, before stepping forward in an agreed direction, together, coming from a position of absolute trust in one another (saying nothing!). I approached this ‘relationship’ with an open mind, knowing that I had a duty of care towards this being, probably if I’m honest feeling initially superior to him in that I was given the task to lead him.

The balance was quickly redressed! I soon realised that to influence such a formidable being, any being, it was going to take all of my strength and authenticity. When I first engaged with Merlin, we traded scents and got the measure of one another. I was advised by his trainer not to make sudden movements that might startle Merlin (another parallel!; setting the scene with your team. Taking time ‘get the measure’ of one another, and taking a no surprises leadership style, never spooking one another). We got to a point where I could sense quite a powerful feeling of connectivity between us. He wasn’t so much responsive to my words, but to my behaviour, my body language and even, I believe I learned, to the authenticity and honesty of my actions (how’s that for a parallel).

I became aware of a colleague across the stable who was struggling badly to connect with their horse, where both of them were becoming agitated with one another in an animated way. Their horse was standing completely still, as static as a Greek statue, impervious to instruction. The horse was clearly not for being led today, despite my colleague pulling on the reins. I got the parallel that was at play here, a tremendous lesson for me, a testimony to the organiser. The experience gave me a very real sense of well-being and accomplishment; in responsibly gaining trust in such an impressive creature, who was more physically present in stature to me and certainly far stronger than I. To be able to responsibly lead this creature in a common direction was one of the most powerful feelings of leadership I’ve sensed. He trusted me and amazingly followed my lead into the pound without having to say too much or to pull on his reigns…. or even to provide any reward.

This was more about a joint sense of purpose based on mutual trust, a deeper level of leadership than I’d experienced before. I’ve since experienced this in ‘real life’ team and individual leadership situations, as leader and team member alike, with a new awareness. Taking the time up front to understand one another’s aspirations, strengths and weaknesses (measuring the scent of one another if you will before embarking on the task). Building absolute trust in one another’s abilities, to know the complementary sum of the parts of the team, before diving in to a task.

By authentically caring about employees’ aspirations, strengths and weaknesses and by defining how their career development seamlessly sits alongside company revenue and growth goals, people quickly come to feel valued with a real sense of purpose in their work, in my experience. Without any mention of rewards, developing a common sense of purpose foundationally, as I was lucky enough to experience with Merlin, becomes the overriding motivational driving force.

And that takes me to my link with Merlin Consultancy, a meeting of minds around a common purpose, to work closely with the best to help companies to become the best in sector. Being a part of the Merlin Associate group is about working within a high performance team of expert practitioners who have worked with like-minded teams to overcome challenges and realise opportunities from a platform of trust and common purpose.


Gary McAuslan is Managing Director. Supporting Advancement of Clinical & Commercial Activity in Pharma, Biologics and Cell and Gene Therapy Biotechs. The Merlin team look forward to working with like-minded people looking to complement their own team’s strengths with theirs’, to helping accelerate internal organisational people growth.