Laura Graves’s rise to Olympic star status sounds like a fairytale. The soft-spoken rider came from relative obscurity to take fifth place at the World Equestrian Games in 2014 and landed herself Deloitte’s first-ever sponsorship of an equestrian athlete and a place on the U.S. Olympic team. But her success story would be more appropriately described as hard won. Graves carried a medal back from the 2016 Olympics in Rio because she saw the potential in her partner and, through patient and committed work, developed the trust needed to make them both champions. Her story provides a lesson for all of us on how to be effective leaders. Here are six ways we can channel Graves & Diddy in our own lives.
1. Meet Them Where They Are
When 14-year-old Graves began to ride her new young foal, he was uncontrollable and dangerous. She considered selling him after one of his spooks left her with two fractured vertebrae. Luckily, she wasn’t able to find a buyer. Instead, Graves propelled herself to Olympic success on Verdades (Diddy, for short) by recognizing that to develop the special qualities she saw in him she had to acknowledge and respect his sensitivity. She still does. Graves recognizes that even if Diddy’s fears seem silly to her, they are very real for him. Over time, she learned to listen to him and modify situations accordingly. She doesn’t ask Diddy not to be afraid. She asks him to trust her.
2. Leading Through Trust-Building
“I know for a fact that if I asked this horse to, he would walk through fire,” Graves says. “And that’s because I’ve never put him in a dangerous situation. And I never would.” Instead, she manages their training and competition to honor his needs. A sensitive horse like Diddy never trusts just because. He relies on experience to show him that his rider is trustworthy.
3. Manage Emotions
Even the most seasoned horse can get a case of the nerves in front of an audience the size of those in the stands at Rio. Graves is attuned to Diddy’s movements and his energy. When they go into the ring, she can feel his adrenaline racing alongside her own. He is, as Graves says, “honest to a fault,” so ignoring his anxiety could be disastrous. She must calm not only herself but also her horse, and she knows that he will respond to the energy she gives him.
4. Honor Partnership
Graves’s interest in dressage came first from a love of horses, and it shows. No successful equestrian athlete wins a medal alone, and Graves knows it more than most. Her successes and Diddy’s successes are completely intertwined. Through her thoughtful attention to her horse’s needs, Graves has created a winning partnership.
5. Focus On The Goal
Many would see Graves’s choice to move from Vermont down to Florida to pursue dressage full time as a gamble. Graves saw it as the obvious choice. She put all her money and her energy into bettering her ride, committing 100% to her Olympic dreams and to Diddy.
6. Remain Patient
Graves did not come to this place of trust and connection with Diddy instantly, and her path was not linear. There were times she wanted to throw in the towel, especially after suffering serious injuries. The road to Rio was not an easy one for Graves or Diddy. “What people think happened overnight,” says Graves,” has been a lifetime journey. But it’s just slow and steady wins the race.”
Fifteen years after they met, Laura Graves and Verdades became Olympic Champions. They had setbacks along the way, but Graves focused on her goal, listened to her partner and gained his trust. Through that commitment, and her steadfast leadership, she led them both to victory.