Everything I know I learned from a dog

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My husband and I needed a dog like we needed another hole in the head. So, we got a dog. A very sick, very ill-mannered, very handsome canine with a penchant for dirty socks and tennis balls. Faced with the challenge of assimilating this non-human creature into our home and teaching him to behave according to our preferences, I soon learned nothing would work unless he bought into the notion that I was in charge. As it turns out, dogs are experts on leadership.

If you watch a group of dogs meeting at a dog park, for example, it’s bewildering how quickly they sort out who’s where in the pecking order. It is crucial to their comfort to know if they are following, or leading. So how do you convince a dog you should lead, not them? How can you communicate to someone without language how you want them to behave? It’s pretty much the same way you convince humans: provide clear expectations, apply consistent consequences, deliver heaps of feedback (mostly positive), and, above all, do so with calm, confident energy.

Think back to a job you had where you had a less than ideal boss. Likely their deficiencies lay in one of these categories. Maybe you were frustrated at unclear or changing demands, or had a boss who fussed about like a frightened chicken when problems arose. Or maybe you felt like you were working in a vacuum devoid of input on how you were doing, except maybe when something went wrong. Unfortunately, it was probably a bit of all of the above. Like us, dogs crave strong leadership. Most dogs want to please their people. But they can’t learn if sometimes you correct them for chewing socks, but sometimes you just ignore it, and sometimes you chuckle warmly at the classic doggish antic. And they certainly don’t learn if you berate them angrily. That’s all very confusing and demoralizing. We all need clarity, consistency, copious feedback, and calm confidence.

To take this lens further, getting a dog is not unlike adding someone to your team. Selecting the best person for the job is daunting. While no one expects lifetime employment these days, it’s still a long-term commitment with someone you will need to interact with on a daily basis. We are getting better at using structured, data-driven processes to analyze the demands of the role and determine required person-level competencies. But we don’t just want someone who can execute tasks. Ideally we want someone who brings that “something extra.” Someone we actually want to see at work and who helps the team function better. Often it’s these seemingly intangible qualities that determine whether someone will thrive or nosedive upon entry. I have met humans and dogs alike who looked perfect on paper but who came up zeroes because they lacked heart.

In the case of our new team member, we had to weigh the holes in his “resume” against his eagerness to learn and the way his energetic, kind-hearted nature would benefit the rest of the “team.” So far we think he’s a hit. And, with a little remedial training, I am turning out to be a half-decent leader, too.

“The most important quality in a leader is that of being acknowledged as such.” –Andre Maurois 

“What counts is not necessarily the size of the dog in the fight; it’s the size of the fight in the dog.” –Dwight D. Eisenhower

“Dogs got personality. Personality goes a long way.” –Quentin Tarantino

“There are times when even the best manager is like the little boy with the big dog — waiting to see where the dog wants to go so he can take him there.” –Lee Iococca

 

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