horses running

In 1940, shortly after the start of World War 2, Adolf Hitler attempted to overtake the British Isles by launching “Operation Sea Lion.” The first step in his plan was to annihilate the British Royal Air Force, which protected Britain from invasion. Step two was to initiate an amphibious invasion across the English Channel and seize control of the island.

As the story goes, the British had a serious problem. Their military leaders wanted to strategically place artillery along the coast to fire upon approaching Nazi planes and ships, but there was a shortage of young men in the military to operate the artillery as most of them had been disbursed to protect the British Commonwealth and her vast empire. Older military veterans who had served in World War 1 were called upon to man the artillery. While these brave vets were willing and eager to serve, technology had dramatically changed over the period of twenty-two years. During World War 1, artillery was moved using horses. Now it was transported by vehicle.

Every movement by the artillery team was analyzed for effectiveness as inefficiency and wasted time could lead to disastrous results for the Brits. As military leaders observed the veterans in training exercises, they noticed a perplexing behavior. When the vets loaded the artillery, many held their hands out in front of them. This happened habitually, but why? Eventually, it became apparent that the veterans were holding out their hands to steady their horses as they had in Word War 1. Because horses were used in previous wars to transport artillery, they had to be calmed and steadied when the artillery fired. These courageous men were still attempting to steady their invisible horses.

The point: these brave, capable soldiers were trying to steady horses that didn’t exist. They clung to an outdated, obsolete habit and had to be retrained in order to become more effective. “Invisible horses” are outdated, harmful mindsets or habits that are no longer effective. These invisible horses, which may have once been considered a beneficial or effective habit, are now a drain on our time and energy. As time passes, people and technology steadily change, requiring that we modify our habits to remain effective. We can probably all pinpoint at least one invisible horse in our own lives.

 What Causes Once Beneficial Habits or Mindsets to Become Obsolete?

    • Cultural/Generational Changes: For example, different generations have differing attitudes towards management and work.


    • Technological Changes: Once considered highly efficient, the typewriter (and snail mail, for that matter) have long since been replaced by word processing software (and email).


    •  Expectations of Leaders: Modern day management and leadership positions typically require a higher “educational standard” than they did in the past. The qualification of a high school diploma has been replaced by undergraduate and graduate degree requirements. Leaders today are also held to a higher level of accountability than they were in years past.


As much as we may wish that we could go back to “the good old days,” we must work hard to eliminate outdated behaviors or mindsets. In other words, corral our invisible horses.

Corralling Our Invisible Horses

So how do we change ourselves? As leaders, we are expected to set an example of change to those around us. Here are some suggestions on how to change your own mindsets and behaviors:

 1. Mix it up.

Change the way you do things to spark creativity and “out of the box” problem solving. Some examples of this could include taking a different route to work, rearranging your work space or areas of your home, picking up a new hobby, researching and utilizing new tools and technologies, and brainstorming to try and solve old problems with new solutions.

 2. Educate yourself.

Yes, you can teach an old dog new tricks! Whether it is formal education, independently reading and researching various topics, or participating in webinars like the ones offered by Leadership Excellence, you can learn effective, up-to-date techniques to apply to your life and career. Think you have to sit in a classroom to further your education? Put that invisible horse out to pasture. The internet offers a wide range of distance learning options at your fingertips.

 3. Observe.

We can learn a lot by observing others in new tasks or situations. Does your coworker have a new productivity tool or technological gadget? Don’t be shy—start asking them questions to find out if you can benefit from it. Learn from those around you. It is a great way to see what works and what doesn’t without having to go through the trial and error yourself.

Luckily, the British artillery troops never had to face a German invasion during the “Battle of Britain,” thanks in large part to the tenacity of the Royal Air Force, but the lesson learned from the invisible horses still applies today. Don’t let the world pass you by. Stretch and grow along with it to ensure your continued success and effectiveness. This does not mean, however, that we should ever dismiss important qualities like moral and ethical standards. Those qualities are timeless and are the hallmark of a good leader. Remember, the best leaders don’t shy away from change. They embrace it and set the example for others to do the same. Don’t hesitate; get out the rope and start reigning in your invisible horses today.

Does your organization need help corralling its own invisible horses? We can help. Leadership Excellence provides organizational leadership development tailored to your specific needs. We offer on-site leadership development seminars as well as individual and group management development training in Medina, Cleveland, and Northern Ohio. Contact us today to discover how our leadership training programs can get you measurable results.

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