You can lead a horse to water

Mar 13, 2018The Ripple Effect Blog

Lead a horse to water

You can lead a horse to water but you cannot make it drink.

Now what do you do if you can see that the horse really, desperately, urgently and critically needs to drink.  What then?  Do you just give up and say “you can lead a horse to water …….”

The times when we use this saying actually referring to a horse are few and far between.  Mostly it will be used in instances referring to another human:

You can tell someone to plan better but …….

You can tell someone to collaborate more but …….

You can tell someone to start trusting others so as to be able to let go but …….

You can tell someone to rather pick up the phone instead of sending another mail but …….

You can tell someone to set goals using the SMART acronym but …….

You can tell someone to stop blaming but …….

Develop the skills required to get the horse to drink

If your role in an organisation requires you to Influence behaviour;  If you are required to drive organisational change, which will require changing people’s behaviour;  If your role requires you to drive innovation;  If your role requires people to change for whatever the reason you should not become the master of the “you can lead a horse to water” saying.

When your drive for a change is in accordance with the fundamental value of “thinking win win”, and the company you represent needs the change to manifest for its ongoing relevance, then developing the skills required to get the horse to drink become mightily important.

We have a cat, Charley, who at times comes in on our extremely hot days with her tongue hanging out as a result of her need for water and to cool down.  As a younger cat, she would often not drink even though we could see she needed to.  Caroline, our “cat whisperer” noticed the trend and set about implementing ways to get her to drink.  Now you could say this is not a valid story as it involves a cat and not a horse and you would be right.  We just don’t own a horse.

Caroline did not simply leave it in the but ….. space.  Extra bowls of water were placed around the house.  Bowls would be moved in front of Charley where she had flopped down on the cool floor.  The water was kept fresh and the bowls clean.  Caroline monitored when she did drink, if she favoured a place or a particular type of bowl.  Caroline monitored the temperature of the water – did it need to be kept cool?  Did it help if the bowl was full?  By keeping an eye out for the choices the cat made, an understanding was gained.

Charley drank more from a vase on the dining table than any other place.  When she desperately needed the fluid but wouldn’t, the priority for fluid was achieved by giving her almond milk which she never said no to.  We noticed she would easily be distracted while drinking by things cats get distracted by.  We would hear the lapping and attempt to be still for a while not to break the moment.  Our other cat NEVER had to be managed in this way.

The ability to Influence diverse people, takes understanding, patience and tailored effort.  No two people are the same. Claiming that your job ends with presenting the opportunity to change or simply by pointing out the need to change is not going far enough.  When the situation requires the “drinking” then you need to achieve it.

A few tips:

Support people through difficult changes.

Explain the rationale behind the need for the change.

Share the benefits for the people involved in the change.

Understand the fears and alleviate them.

Understand the resistance and remove it.

Use the power of canvassing the change one person at a time.

Create as many change champions promoting the change as possible.

Reinforce the need and the benefits for the change through various marketing strategies.

Be the change yourself – lead by example.

Make it easy for people to embrace the change.

Consider acceptable compromises.

Set milestones and celebrate each one along the overall change journey.

Record successful changes in case studies to be used as confidence boosters with the next situation.

Acknowledge people for the successful changes.

Start new life operating models – “you can lead a horse to water and with the right skills, you can get it to drink.”


Let 2018 be one of those years where we make significant improvements in the lives of the people we influence as business leaders.  Realise potential, improve balance, self-actualise, accept a new challenge, expand or simply enjoy.  These opportunities present themselves each and every day in teams.  You just need to be “Wired to Influence”.


By Louis Gerke

Development FacilitatorThe Ripple Effect


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By Louis Gerke

Facilitator |  Coach | Trainer | Speaker

If this post interests you please feel free to share it: