They’re Learning. What Am I Teaching?

Posted on July 13, 2009


This post is about some insight I gained while walking my dogs.

Kai, flat-coat retriever/chow mix

Kai, flat-coat retriever/chow mix

Rustle, miniature poodle

Rustle, miniature poodle

The other day, when I finished walking my dogs in a local park, I noticed their behavior at the back of the car. Rustle had found a scent and started wandering away – which is obviously undesirable when you’re in a parking lot. I corrected him, and he immediately took a few steps back and focused on the back of my car. He had learned that at the end of the walk, I would open the hatchback and he was supposed to jump in on command. I never set out to teach him that, he just learned it through repetition.

When we first got Rustle, he used to go to work with my wife (we had a third dog at the time to keep Kai company, but Gryffin has left us).  She would say, “Hang on,” when she was about to make a turn. Rustle would sit down and wait for the turn to finish. She didn’t set out to teach him that. He just learned those words meant that sitting down would let him be more comfortable.

When you’re leading a team, the members of the team are learning from you all the time. They observe your behavior. They know when you come back from a meeting mad, or happy. They can tell that you know about upcoming lay-offs before you say anything. Perhaps more importantly, they know when you’re serious about a goal or milestone, and when you don’t really care.

Make no mistake: Just as being part of a pack and following a pack leader are genetically wired into dogs’ brains, so too are we social animals that desire clear leadership. We also desire, to a greater or lesser extent, to become leaders. You’ve seen it in the workplace – the take-charge person who bosses co-workers (or who co-workers accept as boss) when the formal leader is absent. The degree to which a leader is accepted or resented depends on several factors – technical competence, human relation skills, and most importantly trustworthiness. I’ll go in to more details about that in future weeks as I continue to relate insights gleaned from working with my dogs. This week, I want to focus on the leader’s role as constant teacher.

When I was in ROTC, I learned that being an officer meant living in a fishbowl. I didn’t really understand that until I started reading Cesar Millan’s books and watching The Dog Whisperer, and really learning about dog behavior and how to train my dogs. Most of you realize that just by taking responsibility for changing our lives for the better, I made myself the leader of my pack. So, too, do you set yourself up as leader when you set out to make things better for you and your direct reports.

Cesar taught me that my dogs constantly read my body language, tone of voice, and energy, looking for behavioral cues. Unlike us, they respond to these cues instinctively. They can’t help it. So it’s up to me to control those cues, to consciously choose a calm, assertive state of mind and to issue those commands that need to be followed.

On a contract this year, my team and I had to be the boss’ eyes and ears. We had no authority or leadership responsibility, but we had to report when processes were not being followed. Two of the supervisors had trouble. One fought us about whether or not he had to follow the process. He complained in the break room, where all the workers could hear him. We had to act, because he was teaching his negativity to others. The other supervisor admitted she was having trouble and she asked us for help. By the end of the project, she was helping other supervisors stay organized. Her team learned something positive from her.

If you’re in a leadership position, you need to stay aware of your actions, word choice, and tone of voice. Your direct reports are learning from you all the time. If you consciously control that, your team will follow you to a better, more productive place. Good luck, and good leadership!