Lessons in Leadership I’ve Learned From my Dog


As featured in The Huffington Post

I think dogs are great teachers. Admittedly I’m an exceptionally proud (possibly obsessive) dog-mum, but it’s hard to deny our four-legged friends teach us about friendship, fearlessness, and fun… for a start. I’ve already paid tribute to the life lessons I’ve learned about doggy bed-sharing, road-tripping, gardening and Christmas. Recently, while on leave with my prodigious pooch, I realised there’s a lot of parallels between being a good dog-owner and growing a dynamic team at work.

Everyone needs time to play. Being the dog can’t be all about guard-dog duty, yelling at the post-man, protecting your person and counting kibble. And work can’t be all serious either – or everyone gets stressed and disengaged.  If you want your team to give their best when you do need them to be serious, give them time and space to have fun and be creative. Take away the mundane and apparently urgent tasks, and ask yourself what can wait. Then give them the opportunity to brainstorm and test new ideas – alone or together – depending on their style. Let them play intellectually and then enjoy their innovation.

We all need to eat well and exercise… Like you can’t lock a dog up all day and expect it to thrive, we all need balance. All work and no play does not make happy workers.  As a boss, it doesn’t impress me either. It makes me wonder what people are doing with their day, why they haven’t spoken up about their workload, or what they’re trying to prove. We all need time for the gym, family, hobbies, interests outside of work – even just to get home on time to cook and eat well. It makes better and more rounded employees, so don’t shirk, but stop apologising for being human too.

Some pups take longer than others to train. Some dogs ace agility training and fly-ball on the first attempt, have a range of tricks, and walk nicely on a lead. Others need a little more help. That’s perfectly ok. That’s why we have leaders and mentors. With patience and persistence most people can master a skill. But they’re all going to take different approaches. Like training a dog, with leadership it’s not one-size-fits-all. Some dogs are toy-motivated, others are food-motivated. Identify your employee’s motivation (intrinsic or extrinsic) and work with it – not against it.

…And they’ll all have different skills. Try as I might, I can’t get Woofa to bring the ball back when I throw it. But he has a gentlemanly paw-shake and is great at emptying treats from his puzzle-ball. In the office, some folk are good details people, some are big picture thinkers, some are the team motivators, some are quiet achievers. Find your people’s strengths and make the most of them. And remember, the best team is one with diverse, yet collectively complimentary skills.

You can teach an old dog new tricks. It makes me sad to see old dogs looked over for young pups. They may not have the years of enthusiastic, in-your-face energy of younger dogs (or staff!) but they have a lot of wisdom, and ignoring them deprives everyone of a great experience. They’ll bring a loyalty and steadiness to your home or team. Pay attention, honour their expertise, and enlist their enthusiasm. Often they just need to feel appreciated to give their best.

Everyone has an accident on the rug occasionally. Sometimes it’s a training accident, sometimes it’s over-enthusiasm. Not everyone is going to get everything right all the time. As a boss, for me it’s very important for my team to feel like they have a safe place to fail. That’s how we learn and grow. And we all have bad days.

Some dogs are just naughty… but identifying the underlying reasons is usually key to success. Sadly some dogs, like human, will just stare you in the eye while they pee on the rug! But this is where you need to dig deeper. Maybe they’ve had a bad experience in the past. Maybe they’re defiant, or scared. Scared of failing, scared of feedback. Maybe they were just not trained to do better before now. Regardless – when pups and people misbehave, I’ve found it’s usually because of fear or pain. Figure that out and everyone has the best chance to do well.




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