Leadership Lessons from Dogs

Leadership Lessons From Dogs

by: Lora Wondolowski, from November 2017 Issue of African American Point of View

Last January, my family adopted a super-cute, black and white border collie mix rescue dog named Max.  As we have been working to incorporate our new family member into our household, we realize that we need to teach him the rules and lead. Dogs operate in a social structure, like human society, built on hierarchies and rules.  Through Max, I’ve noticed parallel leadership lessons between the dog world and human world.

My kids noticed that Max gets anxious when he doesn’t know who the “leader” is.  More and more businesses are relying on cross-company teams for projects and problem-solving.  One of the challenges of these teams is not having a clear authority figure who is the de facto leader.  The same is true in community-based coalitions and task-forces.  This is often a struggle as individuals vie for power or no one steps forward.   Like our doggy-counterparts, we can also get anxious without a clear leader.

At the dog park, dogs figure out the leader by playing with each other and often all take a drink of water together to release tension and establish bonds.  Dogs also clearly communicate to each other their position.  The leader can be fluid as new dogs come and go and the situation changes.  In the human world, we often don’t clearly communicate our needs, anxiety, and strengths.  Groups try to size one another up with many working not to convey emotion or motives.  We can take a lesson from dogs by clearly communicating ourselves early on.  Leader-less groups can break bread together to establish relationships and trust before fighting for authority.  Additionally, many successful groups share leadership and authority or choose the person they believe has the right skills for the task at hand.

The other big leadership lesson from Max is listening.  Max gives me his undivided attention when we are together (expect when there is a squirrel or cat nearby).  Dogs pay attention to body language and facial expressions.  This is why you can tell your dog that he is terrible using a happy voice and smiling expression without making him feel bad.  I find myself guilty of not noticing the body language cues of employees when I am commenting on something.  Are their arms crossed?  Are they looking away?  Our words don’t always land the way they were intended.  We need to notice and stop.

When was the last time, you gave someone your undivided attention.  I know I often continue typing when an employee asks a question.  That sends a signal that they aren’t as important as my e-mail message.  Max doesn’t check Facebook or look to see if someone more interesting is entered the room.  He makes me feel important and valued.  Listening allows leaders to be present and hear the whole story and instead of becoming reactive.  To solve problems, we need the big picture and details.  Allowing others to be heard also builds trust with those you lead.

Being a leader is never easy.  Yet, maybe a rescue dog can teach me a few tricks to becoming a better leader and the leader my dog deserves.