The Secret of Consistent Growth: Keep Forward Motion

On the fields and beaches of Spain, I learned a simple but important lesson that applies to us as leaders, our teams and our organizations. Keep forward motion. If we follow that principle, we can accomplish much.

As an experienced horsewoman, I was dismayed to find out that on our Spain trip, covering 20 miles a day of varied and beautiful terrain, with seven other experienced equestrians, that we were expected to ride single file AT ALL TIMES. It seemed beneath us. It seemed limiting. How could we ride six hours a day with military-like discipline and enjoy it?

As we moved through the days, we settled in to our line. Horses and riders found the spot that suited them best—some liked the back, and others liked the front. We found we were able to visit freely– at least with those immediately ahead and behind—and still stay in line. And we discovered the power of forward motion.

You may know that horses are prey animals; they fear being attacked. Therefore, when they see things they don’t feel familiar with, they don’t like it. And if one horse deems it worthy of fear, they all agree.

They are also herd animals with a clear pecking order. It is their job to establish their rightful spot in the herd. If one rides to the side of the other, it sets up a competition of sorts, and it can dissolve into a bad situation.

It is for these reasons that we were told to ride single file—and to keep forward motion at all times. If a horse is moving forward, his brain is engaged and he is less likely to resort to negative behavior. The trail leader knew that riding single file was the enabler of steady forward motion.

  • If the lead horse picks the path, the others will follow willingly.
  • If the lead horse doesn’t spook, the others are less likely to. The most trail-knowledgeable person, who knew what to expect or at least to watch out for, rode lead.
  • If the horses ride single file, they are encouraged to stay up with the horse in front of them and keep forward motion.
  • If a horse is moving forward, it is less likely to get distracted by scary things, and kick, rear or bolt.
  • A horse moving forward is doing its job and, therefore, enables the others to do their job, too, while making progress toward the goal.
  • More progress can be made this way with all moving forward seamlessly to the determined destination, and it requires less total effort on the part of all.

We had one pile-up. We were cantering on the beach at about 25 mph. We were in our line and told to ride along the water’s edge where the sand was packed for better footing. However, the lead horse ridden by the tour guide was young and didn’t really like the water, so it was nervous. At one point, the lead horse shied at a tree that was uprooted and lying on the beach. It was an unexpected “thing,” and it was scary to him.

When he strayed off the path, so did the rest of the horses, and the group came to an abrupt stop as everyone tried to pull up their horses and avoid running into each other. We were standing in a cluster, confused and in disarray. All forward motion had stopped. No one quite knew what to do next. Our leader quickly got us back in line and set off again with a crisp forward motion that had us back to covering ground at an exhilarating speed.

As leaders, if we want to avail ourselves of the power of forward motion, we must:

  • Have determined a clear path for all to journey
  • Keep a good cadence for all based on the terrain or particular challenge of the task
  • Be sure everyone knows what is expected of them
  • Avoid distractions
  • Know how to regroup quickly if we get off the path

The power of forward motion allows everyone to work together, making steady and sure progress toward the goal. Author Jim Collins labeled this “fanatic discipline.” Great companies have the discipline to achieve high performance at a steady pace; the ability to achieve high performance in difficult conditions; and the discipline to not overdo things in good conditions.

This concept—steady forward motion, all working at the same pace—creates champions that are high performers not once in a while, but every time.