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What my dog has taught me about leadership

My wife was joking with me recently about how much our dog has taught me about leadership, from Twiglet's ability to coordinate her "team" to ensure that she gets her two daily walks, snuggles on the couch, and, of course, food regularly. I want to think we trained her, but I'm pretty sure she is leading us – the epitome of unassuming, everyday leadership.

As I reflected on this light conversation about Twiglet and leadership, I realised that Twiglet had taught me much about leadership. She has helped me understand one very essential leadership lesson; that everyone in leadership roles has to slow down, take time and space to look about, and go for a walk. If you asked any of the people I've worked with over the years if slowing down, being patient, and looking about were one of my strengths, I'm sure you'd receive a resounding no.

Reflecting on my behaviours, I can admit that I am/was a workaholic, who persisted (in what I'd like to think was a loveable manner), and is way more akin to the dog who won't leave the bone alone. I'd have an idea and then keep going. I believe I was tenacious. Except that wasn't the feedback, I received from colleagues. Instead, my focus on an idea led me to ignore comments from others and bury my head in doing rather than creating connections, ensuring my teams never fully understood the idea and why.

Twiglet helped me recognise this behaviour for what it was: manic, short-sighted tenacity. Twiglet, for example, when discovers a smell she can't get enough of and pursues it as if nothing else exists - cars, people, other dogs. In retrospect, I can see that my behaviour was not always conducive to building the high-performing team that I desired. By chasing a concept so hard, I discouraged people from becoming engaged and put a lot of pressure on myself to deliver, deliver, deliver.

You could fairly ask what I'm doing about this belated recognition brought on by my dog. The short answer is three things:

  1. I recognise that I can't run all the time: It's necessary to pause, look around, sniff, and make sure you grasp the lay of the land. Twiglet, in a nutshell, has helped me get perspective and calm down. A daily walk or two has helped me gain perspective on my work, step away from day-to-day activities, and contemplate. I always return feeling better and with a clearer view of what I've just done. I've begun to see this at work, where I'm attempting to apply perspective to e-mails and deadlines. Rather than running at all of them, I've tried to slow down my answer and plan more realistic deadlines. I've discovered that when I do this right, the individuals I work with feel less pressure, enjoy working with me more, and prefer having reasonable deadlines over my excessively ambitious ones.

  2. I'm learning when to run: recognising the need to slow down doesn't mean that Twiglet isn't tenacious or doesn't know when to chase a squirrel or make a point (every day for 30 minutes just before her walk). She understands that leading entails knowing what is critical to focus your team on and when to step on the gas. Sometimes you have to charge ahead and go the additional mile. However, this is not always the case. By taking the time to ponder and analyse your priorities, you will become more adept at determining when to run and when to stretch out deadlines.

  3. Just because you've gone this route before doesn't imply it's the same: Twiglet constantly seems to discover a new smell on our walks, regardless of how many times we've walked that way. It started me thinking about how, despite taking the same route every day, the world is constantly changing. The difficulty is in noticing. Recognising that just because you've been this way before doesn't mean it'll be the same again. Many leaders fall into this trap. We could all learn from the Twiglets and spend a little more time noticing, even if we've done something hundreds of times before.

I can't say I've mastered the Twiglet method of leadership - I still haven't got the afternoon sleep, and I revert to old habits at times. I'm improving at applying the three lessons and taking my time in leadership contexts. Fortunately for me, while I type this, I have an amazing leadership model at my feet who will undoubtedly keep me on course. But, first, a walk.


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