Unleashing Leadership

By: ROCHELLE NEWMAN, Walton Isaacson

We recently got a new puppy. An 8 month old rescue. Sometimes he’s a terrier and sometimes he’s a terror.  He’s not our first dog but he is our first small dog and somehow I find him easier to spoil than either of the two lab mixes my husband and I have had over the years. Having worked with trainers before, I am well aware that the lessons are really owner behavior modification sessions disguised as dog training. On leash or off, it is we owners that need to learn leadership as a prerequisite to puppy partnership and all of the unconditional love that’s part of the package.

As I come up against so-called training challenges, I am reminded of some habits that have appeared in the workplace over the years –patterns that have often stood in the way of my moving a team or individuals forward.  I’m also reminded that gender might be at play when I’m ignored but my husband isn’t – even our four legged friends have unconscious bias. Never mind that I’m sharing learnings filtered through my relationship with a dog – my intention is not to cast colleagues as canines. My intention is to look in a mirror and take accountability for authority and ambivalence. Lessons learned with a leash in my hand are simply a reminder that leadership, regardless of the subjects being led, requires us to look at our own styles and pinpoint opportunities for growth.

So here are a few“Oh my, I do do that don’t I” moments that are as ineffective with puppies as they are with professionals. 

I. Is that a question, a negotiation or a clear call to action?   With dogs, clear commands trump questions. It’s that simple. But with people, context is everything. There are times when any one of three aforementioned communication choices would be appropriate so I will refrain from prescribing one over the other. There is a tendency, however, particularly among women (or so the theory goes), to shy away from imperative sentences -- you remember, the ones that end with a full stop period or an exclamation point. Imperative sentences are used to express a request or command. They do not leave room for guess-work about what you want done nor do they imply that the request or the command is really half-hearted or hopeful cajoling. The fact of the matter is that wishy washy communication sounding more like “I wish you would” than“I expect you to,” leads to confusion which, in turn, leads to stress and undermines success. You can be tactful without being tentative You can be decisive without being a dictator.

2. Here, let me:  Often, being helpful isn’t helpful. Hovering or swooping in and “coming to the rescue,” creates everything from over reliance to resentment. Leaders give clear direction and let others work through problem solving offering to be a resource, in some cases, but not a crutch or a replacement for independent thinking. Dogs aren’t children and colleagues aren’t children – and even children aren’t children in the patronizing infantilizing meaning of the word. Believe in your people. Don’t belittle or baby them. Let people show you what they are made of and they’ll remember you as a motivator and not a micro-manager.

3. Oh all right, just this time… Inconsistency isn’t kind. Bending rules or sending out mixed messages isn’t doing anyone any favors. It’s tempting to get lax on leadership. After all, it takes a great deal of focus and energy, and, as the saying goes, it is sometime lonely at the top. But consistency keeps everyone on track, pulling in the same direction, seeing a shared vision, and rallying around a common goal. Of course all leaders miss a beat here and there but a missteps is different than a moving target. Flexibility is fine but it should still operate within a given framework as opposed to becoming a leadership free for all.

4. Don’t hate me: Yes, we all want to be loved and leaders are no exception. But leaders understand that it’s not about being revered – it’s about being respected. Frankly, if your focus is on your feelings being triggered by a stand-offish pup or a scornful staff member, you may need this reminder: It’s not about you. Leaders are working toward something bigger than themselves. Scripting scenarios about what people do or don’t think about you isn’t productive. If you’re not connecting with someone ask yourself what you might do to bridge that gap and what you might ask of them in order to work on solutions together.

5. Leave it. Drop It.  This is one of the most important commands you can teach your puppy. Mine has picked up and dropped rusty nails, glass, and chicken bones. He did, however, swallow a bird feather leading to an emergency visit to the vet. Danger is everywhere and there’s no way that you can have your eyes fixed on them 24/7 – that’s not leadership, that’s lunacy. So what’s the staff or colleague equivalent? Toxic behavior. Leaders encourage dialogue but they make it very clear that destructive behaviors will not be tolerated. Finding effective ways to be clear about boundaries without inhibiting a “speak up” culture is a leaders’ needle to thread. Neither dogs nor people should be muzzled but not everything is worth yapping about.