Leadership lessons from horse trainers

Robbie Sinclair

It’s funny from where we take our inspiration. As an Irishman, I am keen on horse racing, but I surprised even myself this week when a horse trainer taught me an unexpected lesson about leadership.

This week is Ireland’s final race meeting of the year. Who will be champion trainer? Everyone is talking about the fierce competition between perennial champion trainer, Willie Mullins, and the new kid on the block, Gordon Elliot, who was marginally ahead in terms of prize money. On Tuesday, the tension rose as Willie’s horses performed well and the gap closed further. Then, on the last race of the day, Willie’s horse was a sure bet to win when, inexplicably, the jockey Paul Townsend missed the final fence, and took out another horse. Gordon’s horses finished 1st, 2nd and 3rd, and Townsend was banned for 21 days for dangerous riding, to be served at a later date. This put Elliot in the lead.

Everyone, including me, assumed that Willie Mullins would prevent the disgraced jockey from riding again this week. As a trainer, there would be pressure from the horse owners, jockeys, and the media to address the situation. There was no comment from the Mullins team. Behind the scenes, they re-grouped and came back on Wednesday. To everyone’s amazement, Paul Townsend was riding, and they went on to win six of the seven races, with Townsend winning three. Willie is now in the lead and had another great day yesterday.

Looking back on the week, I was very impressed with Willie Mullins as a leader. He was loyal to his team, and managed to persuade the owners to let Townsend ride in these crucial races. He demonstrated resilience of character, and clearly favours a culture where mistakes are part of the learning experience. Riders (and employees) perform better when the leadership provides support, trust and space to grow and make mistakes. As we know, the greatest lessons come from failure, not success.

Nobody knows who will win the title on Saturday but my bet is on Willie Mullins.

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