Last Sunday I got up early and looked out the window at the weather to see whether horse riding would be possible. A clear sky and lots of puddles from the night’s rainstorm invited me to try. But I never did get on the horse. A bigger lesson was meant for me that day.
When I arrived at Yeguada Olmaz, the horse breeding ranch I’ve come to call a second home, owners Jesús and Guiomar looked worried. One of the foals, Pagolín, had lain down in a field and would not get up. We tried to flip him over to his other side to help circulation and to push him back onto his feet. It didn’t work. Guiomar called the vet. We put a cover on him to keep him warm and a sack of hay under his head to avoid damage to his eye socket.
A possible ending loomed as we all faced our own feelings about death. I felt incapable of concentrating on a riding class or listening to the instructions that Guiomar tried to provide. I struggled to momentarily forget the concern for the six-month-old foal lying on the field. So while she and her husband tended to their herd’s needs that day, I made myself a little dry seat out of stones beside Pagolín and his mother Lorca. I must have spent two hours out there on that wet field. It felt important to be there. It felt like there was no other place I should be. Not because I was needed in any way.
But because something very important was happening right in front of me. Something I didn’t want to miss. A lesson on how to face death without resistance. On how leaders are supposed to react to difficult crisis like terrorist attacks, or impending foreclosures, or even the outbreak of a deadly new virus. I remembered all the times I’d hung out in the stall with newborn Pagolín and mother Lorca in the previous six months, coming up with unique leadership training exercises.
They were always there for me when I wanted them. How could I not be there for them at a time like this? Once again, they taught me something about life and leadership that I hadn’t fully comprehended before. Once again, I confirmed that animals are here to teach us how to be better people and better leaders. They didn’t resist. They didn’t try to fight. They didn’t protest. They simply experienced those two hours with me in total serenity. The kind of serenity we humans search for all the time. Pagolín nuzzled my hands and very slowly teased my palm with a playful bite.
His limbs rigidly stretched out in front of him. His mother standing behind me in silence. Both breathing deeply and slowly, facing each passing moment of pain and fear without judgment or complaint. It’s not that leaders should do nothing in the face of catastrophe. Far from it. This learning is about staying calm if you want to use your full talent and skill. In serenity we know exactly what to do, while in evasive anxiety we rigidify into tunnel vision and blind repetition. Still, we waste so much energy trying to escape from the endings we fear in life. We run around worrying, gossiping hysterically in corridors and venting frustration during long, circular meetings. Or we deny the obvious, convincing ourselves we can conquer anything while acting as if everything will magically turn out okay.
The only way we know to keep calm is to repeat “it’s gonna be alright!” to others and to ourselves. A formula which actually does very little to tranquilize our followers, be they adult employees, or our own children and pets. I stood up eventually to bring some feeling back to my bottom and stood alongside Lorca the mare. I remembered she had lost a foal the year before. This is what our grandmothers used to go through. Bearing children one after the other, losing many of them to wars, plagues or accidents. How did they do it? It’s incomprehensible to parents of today.
I buried my face in Lorca’s neck, just behind her head. And she leaned on me softly. Tired, maybe grieving, maybe holding me in my own sadness. We each face our own weaknesses when we look at death. Endings bring out the stuff we haven’t yet resolved about ourselves. Today we live in a culture with absolutely no tolerance to death. A lot of what we do is about staying young and healthy as long as we possibly can. We pursue success and happiness like no other generation has before. We escape difficulty and ostracize losers. At the same time we struggle to stay motivated or to keep our employees involved in our business adventures.
We talk endlessly about creativity, inspiration, passion… all the things true heroes are made of. We forget that heroes are not forged by sitting in bliss. Endless success or unbreakable health does not make us heroic. It just makes us weak and dependent on more good stuff in order to keep going. Warriors become worthy of such a title by facing hardship and difficulty many, many times. Warriors become heroes by facing death. Why not us?
What I learned that Sunday on the field is that death is part of life. The horses already knew it. It’s not something to understand from the head. It’s a truth to be felt from the heart. That’s why we humans still don’t get it no matter how many times we’re told about it. We don’t become warriors or good leaders by reading books. We learn to be brave by facing death in its many forms.
When I look at all the startups I’ve had to bury, I finally sense this need for endings if there are to be any new beginnings. As I embark on yet another hugely ambitious business adventure, I wonder every day if it will make it to adult life. I think of how much I’ve lost in the past: the money, the partnerships, the long days of tireless work, the credibility in a failure-averse country like Spain. And then I remember how very much I’ve learned. In my head, for sure, but especially in my heart.
Bravery and ambition are not concepts of the mind! When the vet arrived we all helped the foal back on its feet and got it out of the field with its mother, into a warm stall. X-rays and other tests ensued, eventually finding a fracture of the tibia, which may not be fatal if cured correctly. A ray of hope still shines over Pagolín’s future today.
None of us know if “it’s gonna be alright”, but we’re all a little bit braver than we were before, because testing ourselves against imminent endings slowly brings out the heroes we all carry…somewhere deep inside ourselves.