Everything I Know About Leadership I Learned From My Dog

The bite took a few seconds to register. When it did, I slid down the refrigerator and onto my bottom, face hot with embarrassment and my own coursing blood. The dog that alternated between loving and loathing me delivered his final verdict: he hated me and scarred my face to prove it.

Far and away from the days of doctor’s visits, insurance claims, and severed friendships, I now know how to handle dogs and happily guide my Australian Shepherd, Mellie, along the streets of our community. I’m always looking several steps ahead of her for hazards and “street sushi”, which unfortunately isn’t limited to food. She always walks on the inside of the street — always — because I know my body is more likely to withstand a car than her ~40 lb. frame (if one were to hop the curb during a walk). And when we pass a barking dog — something that has a high probability of eliciting a reaction — I notice that she looks up at me before acting.

I’ve become a leader.

“The task of leadership is not to put greatness into people, but to elicit it, for the greatness is there already.” — John Buchan

Here’s what I’ve learned:

Keep Calm

I can’t stress this enough (heh): Keep calm at all times. Learn to manage your energy. Learn how your thoughts impact your feelings. Learn how you impact others. If at any time you find yourself panicking or feeling anxious, always remember you can (and should) breathe mindfully.

From UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center:

Celebrate Successes (Even Small Ones)

When’s the last time you were praised or appreciated? How did you feel?

Positive reinforcement, a form of operant conditioning, is intended to encourage a behavior, while negative reinforcement is used to stop or decrease a behavior.

Operant conditioning “is useful in education and work environments, as well as for people wanting to form or change a habit, and…to train animals. Any environment where the desire is to modify or shape behavior is a good fit.” (Source)

How should you deliver feedback? Depends on the person, situation, or dog, but it should always be delivered in service of— and in the language of — the recipient.

Act in Service of Others

Mindful Leadership expert Janice Marturano suggests asking two questions when presented with a choice:

1. Is the decision I am making a “win-win-win?” In other words, will this choice have a result that is good for the organization, good for my colleagues, and good for the community?

2. Or, has short-term thinking or self-interest clouded my ability to lead with excellence?

Keep these top of mind as you lead and make decisions that will impact those who trust and rely on you.

Banish Complacency

Self-awareness is your leadership superpower. If leadership is “unlocking people’s potential to become better”, leaders must also always strive to live up to their promise and potential. Part of your role as a leader is to know yourself — warts and all — so you can address any deficits and enhance your strengths in service of continuous improvement. Ask for feedback and truly take it in; a surefire way to lose trust is by not considering suggestions for improvement after you’ve solicited them.

Final Thoughts

I consider it a privilege to lead Mellie. She’s brilliant, affectionate, and a true showstopper; I’m a local celebrity by association. She helps me remain calm and I feel strong when we’re together.

May you too find strength and purpose through leadership.

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