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Breathing into our fears

Three weeks ago after dark, I was taking two of our older mares from one field to the other. A daily trip for about a week already. They don’t like each other – I know that, and so far I had managed it.

That evening one of my mares overtook me and attacked the other — as she turned and kicked she hit the back of my head. I fell to the ground while the two where still fighting around me. I felt another kick, but mostly I saw stars, realised it could never realistically take this long to fall – I am no good at physics but I do understand rudimentary gravity – and wondered if I would die.

I guess the fact that I could think all this while falling was/is a good thing – my brain did keep working. Having gotten to the ground, finally, I reached for my phone. I couldn’t see the numbers and instinctively I pressed last calls, I looked for something I could recognize, I found my sisters name and called – told her I had been kicked and she needed to call my parents. My next instinct was to move, I pulled myself up with the help of my mare, who was waiting in front of me, leaning on her as I stumbled almost drunkenly, slowly steadying my walk. By the time I met my parents I was shouting orders about where to put the mares and needing to be taken to a doctor.

I was very lucky, other than bruises and being sore for a couple of weeks there is no long term damage. Well, none that one can see, yet something has stuck: I have become afraid.

To be precise I have become afraid of entering the fields with the horses, I avoid going in and when I do I have become slow, stiff and I find it hard to see around me. In short I am in the grip of that part of my brain that knows only freeze, fight or flight – and interestingly though it is designed to protect us – in a complex situation it makes life more dangerous.

By now you may be wondering how this is in any way relevant to a blog about leadership. What has fear got to do with working in organisations, or with leadership? Hopefully nothing, and yet, when I reflected on how I have felt in the past few weeks the most similar experience I could recall was one where I had been afraid working in an organisation. Just like now I felt confused, slow and disoriented – I couldn’t see the complexity around me and I felt a need to argue or run.

Clients have shared with me that they have been afraid, sometimes a little, sometimes quite a lot. Some were afraid to make a mistake, others were afraid they weren’t good enough, yet others were afraid to lose their jobs and salaries. Some did not know they were afraid and a question brought it to the surface. Not surprisingly none performed better because of their fear; yes, they may have worked more hours and tried harder, their “best I” was not available to them.

Recently in a dialogue about change we spoke about how fear can paralyse and actually stop the change you want to have. We discussed how amid change and uncertainty what people need to keep moving is some security, some way to deal with their fears so they don’t get stuck.

In a way I am lucky – there is no way to avoid the 17 horses who need to be taken care of every day. Given I am even more afraid of others going in their fields, I need to deal with my fear. I’m also lucky that in my training with horses I have learned a bit about fear. I have learned that it gets worse when you deny it, I have learned that when I own it I can be among my horses and they will even help me. And I am lucky that rather than the “leader seeking creatures” as which they are sometimes described, horses are actually incredibly well positioned to lead one through one’s fear. As I stood amongst a group of 5 in a small enclosure yesterday one of my mares sought me out and started breathing into my face. It’s what I do sometimes to calm them down, now as I started to breathe with her I calmed and felt the fear ebb away. She reminded me to work with fear by noticing and breathing.

Fear is likely to be contagious especially if we repress it, with horses and also with other people. When we work with horses we are told about this, when we work with humans not so much. To me one of the key tasks of a leader is to work with the fear in ourselves and the system. To notice it, to breathe into it, to steer around it or through it, as is appropriate in the moment. To show people that fear can inform us, awaken us and teach us. To help others and ourselves discover when we are in the grip of fear; and to offer two simple tools to work with fear: notice and breathe, notice and breathe and repeat

Each time I walk into that field now there are two words I take with me … notice and breathe, notice and breathe… and repeat…

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