Research Output
An exploration of the core dynamics of business leadership through the metaphor of equine herd leadership
  This cross-disciplinary qualitative research identifies the hidden dynamics, mechanisms and structures forming the core process of leadership, employing an equine-herd metaphor to exclude the complexities generated by the workplace environment. To determine the equine metaphor's suitability, the research commenced with a literature review of accepted academic leadership and followership theories for humans and animals. Thereafter, this original research employed a qualitative methodology of twenty-six semi-structured interviews, eliciting peoples' experiences and interpretations of workplace leadership, and in parallel, equine specialists' observations and interpretations of equine leadership. Over forty hours of interviewing, reflects a combined total of over five hundred year's workplace experience and over three hundred years of equestrian experience.
Employing a phenomenological approach, these observations and reflections are interpreted through code and theme based template analysis of the interview transcripts. The 'raw' interview tape-recordings are then analysed by identifying notable expressions, emotions and emphasis, to identify underlying stories. These emergent stories and template data are subsequently 're-storied' as two separate narratives for human leadership and equine leadership, providing a vehicle for comparing and contrasting the leadership process interviewees described. The resultant information was viewed through the lens of critical realism, to seek the underlying dynamics, mechanisms and structures driving the leadership:followership process.
The contribution to practice is a new understanding of how the leadership process actually works. Furthermore, striking similarities between human and animal leadership processes introduce the possibility of parallel evolution of leadership in equines, humans and many other socially-grouping species. The results also suggest that organisations led by one individual, (appointed outwith their team), followed by an essentially linear subordinate hierarchy is an un-natural leadership process and potentially flawed.
Far from leadership being something leaders do to followers, this research suggests that leading is something followers permit and empower leaders to do.
Simplified, the process identified in natural leadership is as follows:
1) A confident, experienced socially-dominant individual has a vision or need and decides to take action.
2) They become a leader only when a quorum of other socially-dominant individuals choose to follow them.
3) When the quorum of social dominants start to follow, it triggers consensus focussed decision-making by the remaining team.
The process is effectively 'team appointed' leaders being 'primus inter pares' (first amongst equals in the socially dominant group) with the strongest dynamic being the choice to follow not the choice to lead. This dynamic operates within a non-linear social structure, based on a mechanism of dyadic relationships, to form the leadership process that delivers effective leadership outcomes.
This research, combined with previous scientific studies also overturns the myth that aggression-based 'alpha-male' dominance drives leadership in nature - in fact it normally represents crisis leadership, or dysfuctional behaviour more typically observed in captivity. It generates dysfunctional behaviours potentially detrimental to team performance - in humans, generating negative business outcomes.
This cross-disciplinary research brings together the business and scientific worlds to provide new insights into leadership and, in defining the core process, provides a contextual framework to enhance understanding of existing leadership theories and assist organisations in reviewing and improving their leadership processes.

  • Type:


  • Date:

    24 October 2012

  • Publication Status:


  • Library of Congress:

    HD28 Management. Industrial Management

  • Dewey Decimal Classification:

    658 General management


Benson, D. C. An exploration of the core dynamics of business leadership through the metaphor of equine herd leadership. (Thesis). Edinburgh Napier University. Retrieved from



Academic leadership; equine herd metaphor; followership; social-grouping;

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