Focus on the Presidency: All I Really Need to Know about Strategic Planning I Learned on Horseback

By Mary Dana Hinton    //    Volume 31,  Number 3   //    May/June 2023

As this past summer commenced, I knew that I would soon be making a major “ask” of faculty and staff at Hollins University, where I serve as president: At the onset of the 2022–23 academic year, we would need to begin developing a new five year strategic plan for our institution.

A strategic plan is basically just a roadmap that outlines institutional priorities and guides our daily work for a time. But for our strategic planning process to truly be transformational for our university, I realized that my colleagues at Hollins and I would have to step out with trust and take some risks. Frankly, the process would likely require us to be uncomfortable at times. I decided that I wanted to spend some time this summer intentionally putting myself into those same challenging situations: risky spaces, vulnerable spaces, learning spaces.

So, I took horseback riding lessons on campus. I confess, I had never even touched a horse before I came to Hollins, and riding turned out to be the hardest physical and mental activity I had attempted in a long time. In the ring, I was suddenly no longer the leader. I was the learner, the student. I was in a space of critique, risk, and vulnerability. It was uncomfortable. It was humbling.

You see, I expected the task to be fairly easy: Get on the horse and ride. As someone who is used to getting things done, I found myself fearful of what would happen if I messed up. I found myself sweaty, nauseous, out of control, not in charge, and afraid of falling. I had to accept that I wasn’t going to be cantoring by my second lesson. And while I doubt I’ll ever be a seasoned equestrian, I loved every minute of it and did learn a great deal.

In fact, I believe that some of the principles I gathered on horseback can have particular meaning for any group going into strategic planning. On horseback, every rider must be aware of three factors: position, path, and pace. Likewise, in strategic planning, you must begin by being attentive to where you are currently positioned. What are your strengths and challenges? What’s the context in which you dwell? To move forward you must understand your present position.

Next, how do you want to move forward as a result of that context? What path do you want to be on, where do you want to go, and how quickly do you want to move? Your path and your pace, in a horse and on a strategic plan, must resonate and align. As you think about your institutional position, you will likely learn there will need to be some urgency to your pace, but you have to be careful that you don’t confuse “fast” with “forward.” You must plan forward and set your pace accordingly.

There’s a saying in riding that you have to “ask and allow.” When you ask a horse to do something (it’s called “delivering an aid”) and the horse responds, then you have to let go. The same is true for planning: Based on your position, path, and pace, ask for what you want and then allow those who can, and are willing, to do the work. Otherwise, progress is hampered. In riding, if you keep pulling the reins after the horse has stopped, you end up going backward. In strategic planning, if you want to grow, you deliver the aids and allow the work to happen.

I spent a lot of time this summer thinking through how to send clear, consistent directions when riding My Way (my steed’s actual name, not merely a convenient metaphor), and that is also extremely important when it comes to planning. Once you settle on where you want to go, you have to work consistently in that direction and keep moving forward. When you make a mistake, you don’t freeze and retreat. You regroup and deliver the aids. And above all, you don’t lose trust.

Riding and strategic planning parallel one another in a couple of other crucial ways. First, you have to coordinate opposite movements. Often, your left hand and right leg (or the opposites) have to work in unison, and you have to coordinate those movements with the horse’s. It’s not easy! On an institutional level, you have to excel at this mentally when planning. You may have different priorities, but, as on horseback, those different coordinated movements must work together in order to progress and transform your institution.

Additionally, a coordinated forward movement necessitates mutual reliance and consensus building. Neither My Way nor I fully got our way in the ring. We each had to give and take. That, too, is essential in planning. A good plan won’t reflect any individual person, but it will reflect the entire community in unison.

The most important thing about riding a horse is that you cannot advance if you spend your time looking down at the horse. That was hard for me to learn (he’s a good looking horse!). But I discovered that if I wanted My Way to move, I had to look at where I wanted to go before delivering the aids. This is the great truth about strategic planning, too: You have to look up and ahead. You have to look in the direction you want to go. You have to deliver the aids. Then, you have to allow the momentum to unfold.

At Hollins, these ideas will guide both the priorities and the process of strategic planning. We may feel discomfort. We may sweat. We may not want to be vulnerable or take risks. But our institutional future demands those experiences if we are to move forward.

*With acknowledgement to Robert Fulghum, the author of All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten

Mary Dana Hinton, PhD, is the president of Hollins University.

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