Everything I learned about leadership I learned from my dog


Ok, not everything, but I have learned valuable lessons from her that could be applied to effective leadership.  I’m single with no kids, so a dog is my teacher – if you have a significant other and/or children, you may feel the same way about those who share your home.  Leadership, to me, is about the impact one has on others, human or four-legged, so I consider myself a leader in our house.  Many times Lucy’s behavior, when I am mindful enough to notice, has been a reflection of how I show up in our interactions.  She reads signals from me that she interprets and responds to, just like employees in organizations respond to leaders.

Here are three keys to effective leadership my dog has helped me experience:

  • Trust – Lucy and I are a registered therapy animal team.  We go into public places together to visit.  The first rule of being a therapy animal handler is “keep your partner safe.”  I watch for obvious perils to Lucy such as doors opening on her paws or hot asphalt, etc.  I also watch for less obvious stressful situations that are unique to her, such as her distaste for riding elevators.  If she were to get into a situation she perceives as threatening, she could snap and growl.  It’s my job to keep her safe so she can be the friendly, happy fur-ball that she is naturally.  The same goes for people at work – others trust us when they believe we have their backs.  The moment we don’t, trust vanishes.
  • Tone – A stern or angry tone does not motivate Lucy – in fact, she’s more likely to refuse to cooperate.  However, a friendly tone gets a better response more quickly.  A direct, sincere invitation, with a hint that there’s something in it for her, grabs her interest.  If whatever it is sounds like fun she’s much more likely to come along with me.  Mind you, we aren’t talking bribery here – any trainer will tell you that bribery can reinforce dependence, which we can’t sustain.  My leadership lesson here is to be mindful of how we are making our request sound.  Are you excited about whatever it is that you’re asking the other to do?  Would you be willing to be involved or are you simply trying to get rid of some unpleasant task?  What is your mindset and how is it affecting your interaction in that moment?

There’s a recent study that indicates dogs pick up on the meaning of the words, in addition to the tone and how one says something.  To read a New York Times article about the research, click here.

  • Immediate Feedback – The smallest actions, that we may not even be conscious of, send signals to others.  Subtle things can be cues that something is about to happen.  Here’s an example from a friend who works from home – her dogs were sad because she had on her “loud shoes.”  In other words, she was wearing shoes with heels that made a sound when she walked – to the dogs, that signaled she was leaving the house and they wouldn’t be going along.  Lucy reacts based on my mood, expressions, and gestures.  I get immediate feedback about how I am impacting her.  For instance, when we are walking, she can sense my reaction immediately if I get tense when I see a dog that may be a threat and she perks up.  The same is true for the people with whom we work and live.  Those we lead are constantly monitoring, either consciously or unconsciously, the environment we create.

The common thread to these lessons is that effective leadership requires that we are mindful of our impact on others.  We have a chance to make life better for others and we can do that in small ways that mean a lot to those around us.


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