Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Keepin' It Real: Leadership at Work and at the Dog Park

The other day, I mentioned to my dad that you can learn a lot from a dog. He laughed, but he listened to what I had to say. And I believe you really can learn a lot from a dog.

For example, I just got done listening to this audiobook my boss gave me, Leadership and Self-Deception by the Arbinger Institute. One of the points the book makes is that people can sense insincerity in the workplace. If you pretend to care about your employees or co-workers, they'll know, either immediately or eventually, that you're faking it. You will lose credibility. You have to truly care about them in order to garner loyalty and respect. You have to be genuine with them. You can't be a true leader without being a true person.

It's the same with dogs, I've decided. You can take your dog to a hundred training classes, but if you don't build a true bond with your dog, she'll never really respect you. She might roll over if you have treats in your hand, but she still won't always stay when you ask her to, or come to you when you call her.

I'll give you an example. When I was in Holland in January for my grandmother's funeral, I spent a day with one of my cousins. We stopped in a beachfront surf shop near his house for a few minutes, and a resident golden retriever gave us a mildly curious sniff and then continued his ambling around the store. On our way out, we drove past the back door of the shop just as the owner was taking some boxes to the dumpster. His arms full of boxes, he turned toward the dog when he saw us approaching in the car, and told him, quietly but firmly, to stay. The dog, instead of crossing the street to join his human, waited patiently for our car to pass.

The dog was off leash, free to run away to the beach or do anything he pleased, but instead he followed his human out of the store and listened perfectly when he was told to stay. Perhaps he is just a wonderfully docile and obedient dog. But I would bet that the dog also enjoys a relaxed and happy relationship with the shop owner.

I have a book of dog tricks, and I have taught my dog some cute ones, like how to twirl and how to shake hands. She's supersmart and will do anything for a piece of food or a tennis ball. But teaching tricks no longer has the allure it used to. I'm focusing now on bonding with my dog by simply being a good caretaker for her. If I truly care about her, which I do, and if I set fair but firm expectations of her (no jumping on guests, no stealing food off our plates, listening to us the first time when we ask her to sit, etc.), which I am working on, I believe she will sense it, and that her respect and loyalty will follow.

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