Human Performance Technology: the study and ethical practice of improving productivity in organizations by designing and developing effective interventions that are result-oriented, comprehensive and systemic. (Handbook of Human Performance Technology, James A. Pershing)
Custom Search

What my dog taught me about leadership

Posted: September 14th, 2009 | Author: Patrick Smits | Filed under: Leadership Performance | Tags: , , , , , , | No Comments »


It has been said that dogs are chosen by their owners. And after a while the owners start to look like their dog. Having a puppy means spending a lot of time on its training. But without you realizing it, the dog also trains you. Some owners don’t get along with their dog and need help. This help is given by Cesar Milan, the dog whisperer. It is amazing to see how quickly a dog responds to different behaviour. As a proud dog owner, I have read many books about dog training. But in my view, Cesar’s approach stands out. He is a great teacher even for non dog owners.

The principles of handling dogs, which Cesar explains are also very valid for Leadership. I do not want to compare people with dogs, nor do I want to compare teams or organizations with pack dogs, but there are some commonalities. No wonder that a dog is man’s best friend.

Calm Assertiveness

In dog training the master should always remain calm. The emotions of the master are adopted by the dog. If the master is unsure and nervous, the dog will become unsure and nervous. If the master is calm, the dog will remain calm. The dog synchronizes with the mental and emotional state of the master. He mirrors the masters’ behaviour.

Equally teams are copying the behaviour and attitude of their leader. If the leader is suspicious and not trusting his people, the team will have a hard time with trust. Self discipline is an important virtue of a great leader.

Dogs only understand clear signals or orders. Ambiguous messages are not understood. Sit is sit and down is down. Many organizations and teams lack clear instructions. This brings these teams in a vacuum of dilemma’s and frustration. Leaders need to lead with clear messages.

Exercise, Discipline and Affection

First, there is exercise. If your dog lies in his basket all day, he will be an energy bomb. He needs to release this energy by exercising. Humans are the same. The worst thing you can do with a battalion of Para troopers is to let them wait. In the end they will start killing each other. Running is the easiest way of releasing energy. Dogs need a daily walk, and we need that too.

Dogs need discipline. When there is no discipline, the dog will feel stressed by the absence of clear rules. This will end causing aggression by the dog. Clear and consequent application of rules is the answer to this. When I do projects in organizations, I see many leaders shy away from discipline. There are no clear rules, or the rules are not applied.  Leaders are afraid to give corrective feedback in the form of “I messages” when unacceptable behaviour is exposed.

When the crowd is well exercised, when there is a lot of work and there is discipline, the crowd will be happy. That crowd has also time for affection. A dog without affection will slow down, get sick and eventually die.

We are not different. Even in the best performing team there needs to be an appreciative way of relating between the team members. When there is no appreciation, the team will disintegrate. Leaders should set the example of showing this appreciation. I get often reaction of leaders being afraid that they will look weak, when showing too much appreciation.

Dogs forgive very quickly

Dogs do not get stuck in emotional hick ups. They get the message, adapt and go on. People are different. People can get stuck in emotional ballast from years ago. This emotional ballast hinders them to engage in new contacts.

Leaders learned the discipline to engage in a contact with a new and fresh look. They will not get stuck in the emotional past.

Dogs move on

Yes, shit happens. Sometimes my dog gets into a fight that ends up being rough. But when they are taken apart, they will move on. They will not come back after twenty years blaming that beagle that bit him that other day. Also when a dog gets a tough correction, he will accept it and move on.

Great leaders don’t get stuck in negativity. They move on with the plan. I think is this is the main differentiators between average managers and great leaders.

Gaining respect

It is all about respect in dog world. Giving and getting respect. Dog packs have clear picking orders. The lower dogs will always try to take the place of the Alfa dog. The Alfa dog will defend his place. It gains respect by setting a defined behaviour. The Alfa dog will be the one who eats first. The Alfa dog will always be the first to step on new premises. And he will clearly watch over these things.

Great leaders will also be very careful in gaining respect. In my opinion was Ghandi a great leader who gained his respect through the behaviour he exhibited. Great leaders will in return cherish this respect by giving respect to others of the team.

Emitting and receiving energy

In a dog pack it is all about energy. It is said that animals and also dogs have a sixth sense. This sixth sense is their receptiveness for energy. A dog will know that there is a thunderstorm coming only from the changed energy in the air.

Great leaders are also aware of the energy and they can handle that energy. I remember pope Jean Paul II in front of thousands of youngsters on a world catholic congress. For more than twenty minutes, there was nothing said in the audience. But you could feel the energy. And Pope Johannes II really played with that energy.

Aggression is a no go

Aggression is not acceptable in the dog pack of Cesar. When a new dog enters the pack, he needs to learn that rule. And that is not always easy. Aggression is a sign of weakness. By adapting to the rule of “No aggression” the dog will grow stronger.

Great Leaders will have to use no aggression to lead their teams. Leaders that use aggression will not last. All dictators come to an end one day. Also between the team members aggression should not be allowed.

The master acts, the dog reacts

When Cesar speaks on his video’s he says: “we rehabilitate dogs and we train people”. Dogs are extremely dependant on the behaviour of their master. The right behaviour of their master can make a happy well balanced dog. But that same master can make of his dogs an aggressive “hit man” just by his behaviour.

Leaders have unlimited influence over their teams by their behaviour. It is not their words but their overall behaviour that is important. Especially when the behaviour does not match the words, it is that behaviour that will have the most influence. Therefore, I believe that leaders lead by walking and not so much by the talking. You could wonder that a manager is not better off getting a dog to learn about leadership than going to all this expensive Leadership Development programs. It would surely be cheaper for the training budget.

YouTube Preview Image