Leadership Straight from the Horse’s Mouth

Leaders can significantly improve their skills by having outside hobbies, passions and pursuits.

It helps them channel their energies, frustrations and passions into something else other than organizational effectiveness. It can also help them learn a thing or two…

Business leader Carol Cone of Cone, Inc., a leader in cause-related branding programs is also a champion in the highly competitive world of showing horses when she is not leading her firm.

Cone enjoys this extra curricular activity in part because it closely relates to her role in leading her organization. For the uninitiated, the world of showing horses is about riding horses, known as hunters, over jumps of various heights. The key is to make it look as smooth and effortless as possible, much like ice skating, or like leading a successful organization. But prior to showing horses, things were a bit different.

For two decades, Cone focused single-mindedly on leading and growing her business.

When friends encouraged her to find a personal passion to pursue, it was natural for Cone to return to the equestrian world and the sport she had first enjoyed at age seven.


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Cone not only re-connected with the joy of the sport, but in her unabashedly direct style, says she realized “that I was very good at it!”   Her recent honors include the Grand Champion Adult Hunter at the Winter Equestrian Festival in Wellington, Florida for 2006/2007 and the American Hunter/Jumper Foundation National Adult Champion in 2006.

More important, her return to showing horses has taught her four key leadership lessons which she applies at Cone, Inc. and she recommends to  others.

The four key lessons are:

1) Focus
2) Patience
3) Teamwork
4) The Importance of Little Victories


“When you’ve practiced for months, and have only two minutes to do a championship performance, you must be totally focused on the moment.  You’ve got so many moving parts on which to concentrate, many of which are new or different: the course, your competitors, the crowd and that day’s weather.”

Cone says that even with a great relationship between rider and horse, the rider must sense if the horse is quiet or nervous.

One must instinctively sense “if you should push, or if you should hold back.”

That kind of intense focus is critical in today’s challenging and rapidly-changing work environment, she adds.


Cone says you can only push horses so far.  “You must be patient about their development.”  She says the same is true of your team, particularly specific team members.

“Remember, a team isn’t one person, but a group of individuals.”

It’s also critical to be patient when bringing clients to a Big Idea.  “You need to give clients the time to understand all the elements before they’re going to take a big leap with you.”  And you have to explain the importance of  patience to those clients.  “They must understand the need to  be associated with a cause over time before gaining reputational benefits.”

“When you’re showing, you can have the best horse in the world, but if it needs to be cooled down, or massaged or even get acupuncture, or if it requires an advance ride around the ring at 6:00 am to feel comfortable,” patience is a virtue you must develop to win.

Cone acknowledges that as someone who is very competitive and committed to superb results, this was a tough, but vital lesson for her to have to learn.


Cone is quick to acknowledge that her victories in the show ring aren’t merely her own, but shared with an extensive team, including  trainers, grooms, vets, masseuses, blacksmiths and more.

The same is true of cause-related efforts:  It requires a team of dedicated agency professionals, a patient client team who believes in the cause, partners at the cause organization, even the media.

“But when it all works,” Cone says, “it’s like a symphony.”


Cone says that “When you lead an organization, as when you show horses, you must accept that you can’t win every competition,” but you should recognize, acknowledge, learn from, and savor the little victories along the way.

She adds that “Every day I need to accomplish something to be satisfied.”

Still, it’s unrealistic to think that each day will bring a major victory, and if that’s what leaders seek, they’re bound to be disappointed.  But celebrating the small victories along the way can inspire a team to deliver the next big idea.

As Patrice Tanaka acknowledged in a recent post about the leadership lessons she learned from ballroom dancing, Cone says there’s one other important learning that leaders can gain by following their passions:  “I have an intensity that’s powerful and can overwhelm others.  Having another outlet where I can excel allows me to modify that intensity; and that makes me a better leader.”

What leadership lessons might you learn from pursuing your passion?  Is your intensity burning out members of your staff?  Are you overdue for a lesson in patience?   Is it time to start celebrating the small victories?  When the last time you acknowledged the team that helped make you a winner?

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Ken Jacobs is the principal of Jacobs Communications Consulting LLC.
He can be reached at ken@jacobscomm.com

Image Source: homepage3.nifty.com

6 responses to “Leadership Straight from the Horse’s Mouth

  1. Interesting concept! Most people view the activities that are adjacent to their careers to be an escape. Their value to leaders is perceived as providing “balance”.

    There are universal attributes – things that will help us be better at fishing/golfing/horseback riding/whatever – that can be practiced and applied across disciplines, such as patience. What is key in taking the lessons we learn from our passions and applying them to our work is our passion for our work. Learning leadership in all we do is not innate. If you’re not also passionate about leading, then you won’t seek leadership value in other experiences.

    Ken – I move to change the title of this post to “Leadership from the Horse’s Back”


  2. Andrew,

    Thanks for taking the time to add to this discussion, which you definitely did with your insights.

    I’m afraid that changing the name of the post implies something about Carol that’s most definitely not true. However, if your point is that I’m sometimes that part of the horse’s anatomy….guilty as charged!



  3. I could not agree more! I, too, show Hunters AND have recently taken up competitive International Latin ballroom dancing. There is no question that the balance, finesse, showmanship and centering that both of those activities require makes me a better leader – and a better partner for my strategic communication clients.

    Having something external to refuel your mind and spirit is essential to remaining creative. I’ve come up with some of my best ideas for clients on horseback, and once even clinched an article in The Washington Post while riding!

    My passions not only give me an outlet, the teach me valuable lessons that I use both in running my company and in developing campaigns for clients. If you don’t have something in your life that you love to do, I strongly urge you to find it…your soul and success will benefit!


  4. You have selected an interesting example in competitive riding. As a former rider, I agree it is a great training ground for focus and patience. It also trains you in the power of persuasion and discipline when you are physically controlling something that is 10 times bigger and stronger than you are. But, I beg to differ with Carol that the sport teaches teamwork. Her vet, her blacksmith and her trainer are her support staff, not her team. Unlike soccer, hockey or softball which require interchange among players to get to the goal, riding is a very singular pursuit. Those of us who were submersed in it in our formative years may have missed some of the great lessons of how to work with a team. There are lots of things to be gained investing yourself in something other than work. But let’s not try to say we are going to learn every aspect of leadership from a hobby.


  5. Sport in general (whether an individual or team activity) is a great way for leaders to learn lessons about themselves and the dynamic of teams, which in turn they can then apply to the work environment.

    The challenge is that it takes time for a career to develop and become a leader during which time athletic frames and flexible limbs start to decline. As a result many leaders across organisations move away from such opportunities and become more comfortable with the sport of selecting the latest ‘pinot noir’ from their favourite restaurant or ‘securing a corporate box’ to the latest game/show in town.

    So, Carol’s story is a timely reminder for all of us to stay as fit and healthy as possible….


  6. Pingback: The Best of L2L Blogazine 2009-2010 (Top #3 and 4) « Linked 2 Leadership·

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