Building Better Bosses

Unusual Leadership Training Programs: Horses and VR Games

Most executive development programs take place in a training room. They involve lectures, role play, small group breakouts and case studies. But what happens when we disrupt the setting, and make learning physical and emotional instead of intellectual? We looked at a few unusual leadership training programs and learned how they provide unique insights into personality and management style.

unusual leadership trainings

Does the horse accept me as a leader? Equus Coaching, a training technique, helps executives become aware of their own presence.

Learning from Horses

Equus Coaching, an experiential training technique with horses, helps leaders understand their “executive presence” using feedback from the animals.

In the one-day course, participants spend time individually with horses in a round pen where they are coached to lead the horse in an effort to get it to accept them as their leader.

Later in the day, organizational teams work in an arena with a horse directing it through an obstacle course they have created using various props. Sessions with the horses are accompanied by debriefs that help participants process what they have learned.

Equus Coaching is designed for the new era of leadership. “Nowadays, there’s much less call for ‘command and control’ and more call for collaborative, distributive leadership,” says Gretchen Pisano, CEO of p.Link Coaching Center for Excellence in Frederick, Maryland, which offers the training.

Commanding the respect of others demands a purposeful and trustworthy presence, whereby your actions, feelings and words align. Highly sensitive, horses intuitively know when this alignment is off. “If you approach a horse with forceful body language, but internally your heart rate is off the charts and you are afraid, the horse knows it and doesn’t trust you,” Pisano explains.

Fail to gain its trust and a horse will ignore you – and there is no way to lead a 1,200-pound animal that is ignoring you.

When the interaction goes right, though, and the horse confers leadership to you, you know it right away. According to Pisano, the training is “super-accelerated relationship-building. A horse provides instant feedback.”

That often results in breakthroughs in self-awareness, she adds. Participants might realize that they are too authoritative, for example, or that they are too collaborative and do not set clear expectations for those they lead (horses react immediately if you do not set an intention using your energy and body language). The course enables bosses to be more effective in gauging their leadership style and in trying different management techniques.

Equus Coaching is enlightening for teams, too. The obstacle course exercise exposes how well the group is working together to herd the horse. “A horse will thwart them when the team dynamics are disintegrating,” comments Pisano. It provides a good analogy to challenges in the real business world.

Train Like an Elite Soldier

With a motto like this one: “The only easy day was yesterday,” you know the courses at SOT-G (Special Operations Training Group) are not for the faint of heart. The flagship program of this leadership development outfit run by a retired U.S. Navy SEAL near San Diego is called “Leadership under Fire.” By all accounts it is a killer.

During an intense three days, corporate heads take on a variety of exhausting individual and group challenges, from swimming two miles in the Pacific Ocean in the middle of the night, and hauling a 200-pound log in a team of six, to running a mock search-and-rescue operation.

Participants sleep in tents on the beach and wear military-style dress. They may quit the grueling program and walk away at any time by ringing the prominently-placed brass bell. But doing so signifies failure to stand up to the challenge. As they say at SOT-G, the ring will resonate in your head forever.

The idea is that when participants are pushed far out of their comfort zones physically and psychologically, they get a clearer understanding of their strengths and weaknesses as leaders. They also learn the value of teamwork, loyalty, communication and determination. After enduring a SOT-G program, a tough day in the C-suite must look like a walk in the park.

Save the World, Virtually

Calling itself “an immersive leadership game,” India-based Evolve is one of a growing number of an unusual leadership training programs based on virtual reality. It is classroom-based, but the simulated world it takes place in is most definitely not.

Picture this: There has been a worldwide disaster. The air will turn poisonous and deadly within the next 365 days. It’s up to you and your small team to find a way to complete a genetic experiment that gives humans the ability to breathe the toxic air. No pressure!

Evolve is designed to let participants assess and develop their abilities in areas like controlled attention, executive function, stress and mood levels, resilience, handling human dynamics, and identifying emotions. Nearly all teams fail the first attempt to complete the mission. Then they re-strategize and do a second round, which is even harder.

The goal of this training game is to better prepare decision makers to navigate a real “VUCA” world, an environment involving volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity. In other words, the normal 9-to-5 day of an organizational boss.

Equus Coaching and SOT-G share this aim too, although the programs obviously go at it in entirely different ways. By putting participants in non-traditional settings, these training courses try to make the takeaways lasting. Pisano says that outside-the-classroom experiences compel leaders to be open and use all of their senses: “when the learning becomes physical, it sticks.”


Kate Rodriguez is a freelance business writer based in Munich. She has an extensive background as an analyst, consultant and writer to public and private organizations. She also worked as a university career coach, specializing in international career search.