Fall 2012

A horse in the course

MBA students learn surprising lessons in leadership

Feature Image
Jonathan Cohen
Associate Professor Kimberly Jaussi teaches leadership for the School of Management. Her horses, Trek, left, and Dewey, are part of the lesson plan.

If you can convince a horse that it wants to wear a halter, you might have what it takes to succeed in the executive suite.

That’s Kimberly Jaussi’s theory. It explains why she established Lucky Stone Farm in Owego and why she often requires her students to absorb a bit of equine education. 

“All the very top riders know how to make the horse think it’s the horse’s idea to be doing something,” says Jaussi, associate professor of organizational behavior and leadership in Binghamton’s School of Management and a fellow at the University’s Center for Leadership Studies. Excellent leaders do the same with the people they manage.

A rider since girlhood and a horse trainer and riding instructor since her teens, Jaussi is known for teaching the principles of leadership and management to elite equestrians. In the academic world, she’s known for research on leadership, creativity and innovation. Her course in organizational behavior, part of Binghamton’s executive MBA (EMBA) program, gives her a chance to meld those two passions.

Jaussi began exposing her students to actual equine partners in 2009. Since she started teaching in 1996, she has used horse-related examples in the classroom. But long before then — even before she began her formal studies in management — she realized the role that horses can play in human and professional development.

“It became very clear to me when I was 18 and working at a therapeutic riding center, the power that the animals have to reach people in ways that no human being can reach them,” Jaussi says.

Horses have been valuable teachers to Jaussi’s 13-year-old daughter, who has Asperger’s syndrome and started riding as a toddler. “It’s been phenomenal in terms of giving her a core identity and keeping her focused, which helps her do well in school and life overall,” Jaussi says.

Also, through years of teaching riding to corporate executives, Jaussi has observed how those leaders carry the values of the riding arena back to their organizations. 

“When you ride, there’s no forcing anything,” she says. That’s a tough concept for a high achiever who’s used to mastering situations through strength of will. A rider who meets with frustration must set the emotional gauge back to zero and start again. “That’s a really valuable lesson to walk into the office with the next day.”

Jaussi notes that many leadership programs use nontraditional techniques, sending office-dwellers on wilderness survival trips or testing their mettle on rope courses, for example. “They all involve doing something extreme in a novel situation, with some element of ambiguity and trepidation and the need to go cognitively to places you don’t normally go in your organization,” she says. “It struck me that the horses would also be a good avenue for doing that.”

A group becomes a team

For Jaussi’s EMBA students, the encounter with horses takes place on the first day of class. “The students don’t know each other at all,” she says. “They need to be put into teams and start to understand what the class involves, the kinds of things we’re going to talk about and how we start looking at ourselves before we can think about others.”

Working in groups of five at the barn, the students engage in a series of challenges. They have to figure out, for instance, how to put a halter and rope on a horse and lead the animal to a specific destination. In another exercise, a group builds an obstacle course and tries to coax its horse through without touching the animal.

The results are similar every time. “There’s always someone whom the whole group thinks is the leader, so they let that person run them over — and then the horses don’t listen to that person or perform for the group at all,” Jaussi says. There’s always a member who claims to have a way with horses but really doesn’t have a clue. There’s a quiet student whom everyone ignores until members notice that this is the person the horse likes best. “And there’s often someone who’s very afraid, and so the group has to figure out how to include that person and deal with the fear.”

At the end, the students take stock. “We look at the way in which people handled conflict, whether they felt comfortable voicing their opinions, how much each individual contributed to generating the solutions, whether they were constructive — that kind of thing,” Jaussi says. Using those insights, each group draws up a contract to govern how it will function as a team for the duration of the EMBA program. 

Physician Ravi Akula, MBA ’11, visited Jaussi’s horses in fall 2009. He remembers discovering that each horse had a distinct personality — the smallest one busy watching what was going on around her, the larger one more reserved, an adult male confident and carefree.

“You have to custom-tailor to each individual — depending on their personality — how you communicate,” says Akula, a cardiologist and medical director of the cardiac rehabilitation unit at Arnot Ogden Medical Center in Elmira, N.Y. “It’s the same thing if you have a difficult person on your team. For lack of a better term, to ‘domesticate’ them, you need to learn their personality.” Working with the horses also underlined the need to set aside assumptions and pay attention to details, he says.

Give-and-take, plus trust

Besides the EMBA students, some Binghamton faculty benefit from Jaussi’s interest in connecting leadership with riding. Steven Tammariello, associate professor of biological sciences, and Ann Fronczek, MS ’99, of the Decker School of Nursing, take riding lessons from Jaussi.

Fronczek, director of undergraduate programs and clinical associate professor at the Decker School, rode and showed horses in college. After a 15-year hiatus, she started taking instruction from Jaussi in 2011.

One of the subjects that Fronczek teaches to nursing students is leadership and management. She agrees with Jaussi that the collaboration between horse and rider can resemble the collaboration among members of a human team. “There needs to be a good give-and-take sort of relationship in order to make it work,” she says. And there needs to be a strong level of trust.

Building a sound partnership is one focus of Jaussi’s work as a riding teacher. “I like her philosophy on how to put the riders and horses together, making sure there’s a good relationship there and a match in skill levels,” Fronczek says.

One more lesson that Jaussi draws from life in the saddle touches on her research into creativity. Much of her work examines what happens when people take knowledge gained from their hobbies and apply those insights on the job.

“When I’m looking at a problem at work, I think, ‘If this were a horse, how would we solve it?’” Jaussi explains. Her experiments and field research show that crossing personal passion with professional passion is a great way to nurture innovation. “When people can bring their whole selves into the environment, when they’re asked to be creative, they’re much more creative.”