Today the word “whisperer” is used to describe people with the uncanny ability to communicate and transform. Recently a young friend attended a conference. When I asked him for the highlight he did not hesitate. He said, “The boy whisperer.” He described a man who has troubled young men referred to him. In a short time the man brings magical changes in the boys. He does this by communicating in unconventional but deeply effective ways. My young friend said, “How does someone learn to perform like that?”
I think I know the answer. Please consider a story from the biography of Monty Roberts called The Man Who Listens to Horses: The Story of a Real-Life Horse Whisperer. For thousands of years, men have been breaking horses. Over time, there has been an evolution of techniques. These techniques are time-consuming. Breaking a horse often takes many days of hard work. The work is both complex and dangerous. The techniques of horse breaking tend to reflect a common assumption: the horse must be dominated. Given this assumption, the techniques often involve savage abuse. The techniques represent the weapons in a war between man and animal. The object of the war is the eventual subjection of the “broken” horse.
Monty Roberts had a father who broke horses. The father was a hard man, and he treated his son much like he treated the horses. There were a number of times when the father brutally beat the son. The relationship was always strained.
As a little boy, Monty became a champion rider. As he grew older, he longed to understand horses better. As an early teenager, he had to opportunity to go to Nevada and study horses in the wild. This was not casual study. He spent long hours with binoculars observing the every move of each horse in the herd. He did this in the heat of the day and in the cold of the night. He did it over two summers.
Monty began to note something astonishing about the contact between horses. The horses used their bodies to communicate. They would use body language to exchange meaning and shape behavior in the herd. Monty became more and more convinced of his discovery. Soon he wondered if he could use this same language to communicate with the horses. He experimented with ways to use his own body to send the same signals to the horses.
Eventually he taught himself how to do an amazing thing. He would bring a wild horse into a corral. He would read the horse’s body language, and he would then send messages to the horse. At one critical moment, he would use his eyes in a certain way. At another critical moment, he would turn his body at a certain angle. At another critical moment, he would place his fingers in a particular position. At each moment, the horse would respond as he expected. He found that in thirty minutes, he could “gentle” a horse. In thirty minutes, he could have a rider safely on the back of a horse that was no longer wild. He further discovered that he could do this with all horses, even those considered hopelessly crazed.
Imagine his excitement. As a teenager, he had made a discovery that overturned thousands of years of human learning. He had developed a process that was faster, safer, simpler and more effective. As the years passed, Monty accomplished miraculous things with horses. He was asked to work for the Queen of England and other famous people. Because he had learned a new language and he could use it to shape the moment of contact, he had great impact on the world. We can do the same.
There are many things we should note about this story. One is how Monty gained his knowledge. He learned the language of horses by an extraordinary commitment to study. In his study, he was willing to do things others were not willing to do. He lay on his belly in the heat of the day and cold of night, carefully observing every detail of behavior. He thought about every move. He asked himself questions. He took notes. He developed informal hypotheses and looked for data to test them. Gradually he developed his own personal theory of how horses communicated. Then he further tested his theory by trying to employ the language. As he did this, his experiments led to greater and greater knowledge and effectiveness.
Just as Monty became a horse whisperer, we can become organization whisperers. An organization whisperer is a transformational leader. Transformational leaders learn to transform people and cultures just as Monty learned to transform horses. For one reason or another, they become deeply committed to a higher purpose and become willing to do things others were not willing to do. They initiate experiments and reflect deeply on what is happening in real time. Both the experiments and the reflection are disciplined. As they move forward, they continue to develop informal, action hypotheses and to look for feedback of any kind. As they continually move forward in reflective action, they develop new understanding and new capacities. Soon they witness transformations that flow from their efforts. Now they are learning from success as well as failure. The success brings a deep sense of awe and continues to stimulate deep learning. As the transformational leader transforms others, the transformational leader also continues to be transformed. It is through this process that organization whisperers emerge.
- How does my learning process unfold at work?
- When have I learned from success?
- How could we use this passage to create a more positive organization?