Leadership from Rajasthan

India was the fifth horse safari our group of adventurous souls has undertaken. By now, I knew that every time you get assigned a horse for a week that partnership will make or break the trip. The ride was 163 miles across desert and farm land at a fast pace with a dozen other riders of varying experience. On this eight-day ride we would be camping for five nights and staying in hotels the last three. We had an opportunity to truly immerse ourselves in the culture of rural India and come away with earthy, authentic, and very personal experiences OR we could spend the week trying to wrestle with a 1,000-pound animal that didn’t want to cooperate.

We are only as good as those we lead

As leaders, you are well versed in understanding that no matter your goal, and the quality of your planning, we are all only as good as the people (or in my case horses) that you engage with. Now don’t get me wrong. All the horses were wonderful in their own way. The indigenous Marwari breed with their famed curly ears are majestic horses and warrior spirits, known for their stamina and power. They are often described as spirited and are very forward. But like people they have personalities that require you to adapt in order to not only accomplish but surpass your expectations. You cannot ride every horse the same way. Some horses misbehave if they aren’t in front and others like to kick and bite.

My Koel, a beautiful bald-faced bay mare, was delightful. Except around camels. The first time we rode past a camel cart, I had one hand on the reins and the other greedily wrapped around my cell phone taking pictures. Before I knew it, she had jumped into the far side ditch. She told me she needs confidence around camels, so I chose different seat and leg aids around them and rode two handed when we passed them. No more jumping, just a little high-stepping as we hurried past.

Do you stretch limits to understand capabilities?

Conversely, while we were not supposed to ride in front of our guide, a Shekhawati nobleman, Raghuvendra Singh Dundlod, affectionately referred to as Bonnie, I have never been the best rule follower. I wanted to see how my horse behaved when in front of the pack; would she listen to my requests or fight to be in control? As we cantered ahead, I let the reins out further and further until we were doing a fast canter and accelerating farther and farther in front of the group. Astride the powerful Marwari mare, thundering through the desert is an experience in which one’s soul is freed, being in the moment, and feeling like you are riding on the wings of warriors’ past. The hope is that it never stops and if it were up to Koel, my lovely Marwari mare, it wouldn’t.

But she listened and before we entirely broke away from the group, I reined her in, and we rejoined the pack. While perhaps I deserved it, I earned no rebuke because we rode together as partners, under control and never created undue risk for ourselves or others. NOW I knew my mount and partner, who she was and what she could do. She was a leader who listened yet had one flaw, easily managed. In my book, our ride was destined for greatness and I was able to enjoy a tremendous experience that can only be described as life-changing.

As leaders, do you pay attention to your talent, helping them excel when they lack confidence by adjusting the requirements or offering your insights, while giving them extra rein when they are at their best?

Riding with 10 other riders can create challenges as well. Our group of seven was paired with two people from Germany and an Englishwoman, of varying experience. Some are more adept at developing partnerships with their horses and smoothing out the rough edges, able to control their mounts at all speeds and ride safely, while still enjoying the thrill. Others struggled, giving in to their horse’s desire to be up front rather than working on rating the pace, or worse, unable to rein them in on a canter and riding with no appreciation for the position and spacing required to be safe at top speeds. This almost caused a calamity.

Our German fellow was particularly unaware of spacing and when he couldn’t keep his horse off the tail in front of him at a gallop, he just yanked his horse to his right and directly into the path of a rider next to me who had to swerve out of the way and almost was unseated due to the abruptness of the maneuver. She is an accomplished rider who, in that moment, envisioned the trip ending for her in a body-battering fall. “You SOB, if you unseat me, I will kick your ass”, she yelled. Subsequently, the gentleman was told he could only ride in the back so as not to cause issues.

As leaders, are you effective at managing the talent base to maximize the effectiveness of the group? Do you shed people who are not able to contribute in a positive way to the group, considering others as well as themselves? 

Things don’t always go as planned

We had a well-defined itinerary for our trip. We knew the path we were to take and which villages we would camp by at night. But things don’t always go as planned. In the years’ time since the last ride in this area, new roads were constructed, and new fences built. Bonnie was constantly managing logistics, on a walkie-talkie with his support staff to discuss routes that we were taking and navigable options for the “gypsy”, which is what they called the jeep hauling our belongings which trailed us. Did we achieve our goals? Absolutely. Did we reach our camp each night? You bet. But the team was adaptable, expecting hiccups but managing through them flawlessly.

They relied not only on each other and their past knowledge of the terrain, they were in constant conversations with locals. Where does this road lead? Can we get around that fence? Where is the village water trough? Is there a flat space ahead of our lunch camp to set up? Having an outside perspective, seeing something through others’ eyes and not just assuming you know everything there is to know even when you have been doing this for decades yields impressive results. We were never lost, without water, or late to camp. It took a “village” of leaders, staff and “local consultants”, but the job was done well.

As leaders, do you have a plan that allows for contingencies, includes outside perspectives that improve results, and keeps your eye on the finish line not the specific activities you tackle daily?

What made this trip so special was the cacophony of experiences, often the unexpected ones the best, which gave us a holistic view of India. If you have never been to India, I highly recommend it but don’t stay in the large cities. Experience the real India you find in villages and mid-size communities. Live India up close and personal. The people, the places, and the horses all penetrated my soul. My horse partner, Koel, and I enhanced each other’s trip, allowing us both to find pleasure in the moment and to bask in the glow of accomplishment each night. I find myself with a deep desire to retain every image, every event, every place so that I might keep the romance with Rajasthan alive. Like a summer love, it is too fleeting, but will be with me forever.

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