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When losing is winning: leadership lessons from Zenyatta

Photo courtesy of Cheryl Ann Quigley

Zenyatta is a racehorse. I saw her on an episode of 60 Minutes one week before the 2010 Breeder’s Cup. By the end of the hour segment I felt like an 8-year old girl, once again in love with horses. I was enamored with this horse named Zenyatta who during her career won purses totaling over $7 million, making her the all-time North American female money-earner. She was a once-in-a-generation princess on the racetrack, winning 19 of 20 races. 

On the day of the Breeders Cup my husband and I watched the pre-race coverage about this extraordinary mare who won the hearts of her owners, her trainer, the jockey who would ride her and millions of other race and non-race fans alike.  We listened to the announcers talk about some of the other horses in the race like Blame and Quality Road, but far and away the airtime went to Zenyatta, though she was not actually favored to win the race. 

Out of the Gate

The race begins. Zenyatta is dead last.  I’m thinking there is no way she will ever win this race and that something has gone terribly wrong. Maybe it is the dirt course she hadn’t run before, maybe she is hurt, maybe she just can’t keep up with the guys. And then, from nowhere, she begins to close gap – bounding down the stretch closer and closer to the pack. She passes every other horse until she is upon Blame, the leader. I am jumping up and down in my living room cheering for Zenyatta. The horses are just yards from the finish line – my fists are clenched and I’m yelling at the TV. And then it’s over. After spotting the field 20 lengths, Zenyatta comes a half-head short of victory. This was Zenyatta’s lone defeat, coming in her final race and against males in the $5 million Breeders' Cup Classic. Blame literally wins by a nose. Zenyatta is second. It was a heart-stopper.

Learning From the Horse Who Didn’t Win the Race

For a moment I am sad. I sit quietly watching the TV coverage show somber faces of Zenyatta’s owners, trainer, and the jockey who seemed to love her as if she was part of him.  And then, I am no longer sad. I smile.  I know nothing about Blame, the horse who won. I don’t care about Blame. I am not interested in Blame. He certainly would be named horse of the year. I only know there is something spectacularly special about Zenyatta that will stick with me forever.

While there is much written about horses, and many people who use them as part of leadership coaching and leadership development programs, there is something profoundly clear and simple to me about what leaders have to learn from Zenyatta. If Zenyatta were teaching a course on leadership she might say:

  • Love what you do – it will show (if you know this horse you see she dances before a race)
  • Give 110% - no matter what (even if you are a hundred yards behind the head of the pack)
  • Let people care about you and care for them in return (you will touch and inspire them--while you may loose a race once in while you’ll get better results in the long term)
  • Give up the notion that in order to be the best you have to win (Blame won the race but Zenyatta captured the hearts of race--and non-race--fans everywhere)

How do you want to be known as a leader?   Do you want to be the leader who wins the race or wins people’s hearts?  What do you think matters most in a leader?

If you missed the race, you can watch it on YouTube. The video is two and a half minutes and well worth a quick look. I get goosebumps every time I watch it. 

Sarah Agan is a regular contributor to Excellence in Government. She has spent the past 17 years working with clients across the federal government with a focus on helping individuals and organizations thrive.

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