Pack Leadership: Reflections

Posted on August 17, 2009

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Kai, flat-coat/chow mix, and Rustle, miniature poodle

Kai, flat-coat/chow mix, and Rustle, miniature poodle

For several weeks now, I’ve written about leadership lessons I’ve gained from working with my dogs. This week, I’m going to turn it around, and show how leadership principles I developed elsewhere in my life helped me with my dogs.

When I was in the Army, I formulated a principle for working with my soldiers: If I treated them like adults, some of them would disappoint me, but most wouldn’t. Later, when I was managing a customer service team in my civilian career, I re-phrased that idea: If you have positive expectations, or high standards, for your interactions with other people, you’ll be rewarded more often than disappointed.

Some of that is based on the psychology of giving people a chance. Most people want to be winners. When you approach them with a bad attitude, you may cut off their chance to surprise you. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Giving them a chance to succeed rewards both of you. When we treat our direct reports like children, they’ll act like children out of spite and resentment. When we treat them like adults, most of them will act like adults – and you get a chance to discover the ones that won’t, and weed them out.

There’s also the psychology of reflection. When you approach someone with a smile and a positive attitude, they’re more likely to return the smile and do a little extra for you. Your positive expectations can become a self-fulfilling prophecy just as your negative ones can. If the person doesn’t respond to your positive attitude, you can always roll back to a tougher stance or ask to speak to that person’s supervisor.

The other day, I walked my dogs in Clark Lake Park, near Kent, Washington. As we finished up our walk, we saw another dog. The other dog was off-leash (Clark Lake is an on-leash park) and running around the fields (we went back this morning, but we didn’t see that dog until we were driving home). My dogs started getting excited. Kai, in particular, loves to play chase with other dogs. After  moment, we saw the other dog’s master walking along, carrying a flying disk. My dogs increased their excitement. They stopped responding to to corrections from their leashes. Kai wouldn’t even respond to direct touch from me. I was tense and frustrated. I wasn’t meeting my expectations for myself as pack leader. I was anxious, afraid that Kai might break loose and go tackle the other dog. If he did, the other owner might mistake play for fighting, or…

Then a light-bulb went on, and I remembered the principle I describe above. Instead of fighting my dogs, I purposely lowered my shoulders, dropped my hands to my sides, and took deep breaths. I resumed walking. Almost immediately, my dogs came back under my control. When I treated them like they were well-behaved, they were. Who knows? When I saw the other dog, I may have tensed up, raising my hands to take up slack from the leashes and initiating the excitement/stress loop myself. What I do know is that when I treated my direct reports like mature, well-behaved dogs, they responded.

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Posted in: Leadership