What my dogs trainer taught me about leadership

Like many during quarantine, we brought home a puppy: a Welsh Terrier named Cardiff.

We were a bit unprepared for the differences between Cardiff and our previous dog. Cardiff is athletic, very smart and highly opinionated. He immediately introduced sweet, furry, adorable chaos into our lives.

I quickly realized that I was not the right leader to bring order to that particular chaos, so we interviewed a number of dog trainers. Cardiff went off to boot camp with Ben and returned two weeks later a polite, respectful dog who was still adorable and sweet. As Ben trained us to be the leaders Cardiff needs, I also learned some important lessons for leading through chaos:

Lesson 1 – To lead, you must have the respect of those who are to follow you.

Dogs will not listen to you if they don’t respect you. To earn a dog’s respect, you need to follow through on every command, be clear, consistent and fair.

Lesson 2 – To be a leader, you need a common language.

It is unreasonable to expect a dog to follow a command he doesn’t understand. You need to teach a dog what the command means before you can punish him for not following it.

Lesson 3 – The antidote to fear is calm leadership.

A lot of dogs are afraid of sudden loud noises. When Cardiff was spooked by a motorcycle, my first instinct was to console and reassure him. Instead, Ben explained, I should simply tell him to heel or sit, showing him that there is nothing to worry about because I am in charge.

Of course, leading people is far more complex and nuanced than leading a dog, but I believe that these basic lessons still apply. Leadership is always important, but the extreme uncertainty of the present moment makes effective leadership more important than ever.

Re-earn respect

The changes in our workplace driven by the COVID pandemic and the social justice movement require leaders to adjust and re-earn the respect of the people they lead. Honesty, empathy and optimism are essential elements of earning, or re-earning, trust. People understand that there is tremendous uncertainty in the market and that it is impossible to predict future events. False reassurance or silence will erode trust. Instead, leaders should be as transparent as possible about the state of the business and what leadership is doing to protect the welfare and the jobs of those who work there. Acknowledging the stress and hardships on your team overall and listening to individual team members is also important. Even if a leader cannot address their concerns, the fact that they know that they are seen and heard will make them feel respected and enhance the respect they feel toward their leader. 

Create a common language

A leader should be clear about expectations for how the team performs in the current environment, particularly if the team is operating virtually for the first time. Working remotely for months on end can leave people feeling disconnected and unseen. A leader needs to create a sense of shared mission and be sure that each team member understands the part they play in that mission.

Show calm leadership

Leaders are only human, and many leaders may not feel calm in the face of the change and uncertainty of the present moment. Authenticity and honesty are essential leadership traits, but, in this case, a leader needs to project calm even if that is not how he or she feels. Leaders set the tone for the team. For people to stay focused on their jobs, they need to feel that their leader has things under control and that, as the situation changes, he or she will tell them whatever they need to know. If a virtual team meeting or town hall devolves into fear-based scenarios, it is the leader’s job to stop the downward spiral and bring the conversation back to facts and what the team can control.

Change is hard under the best circumstances, and we are living through a period of tremendous, rapid change under difficult circumstances. This is a unique opportunity to forge and hone your leadership skills and to earn or re-earn the trust of your team. By creating honest dialogue, clear expectations and showing calm leadership, you will reap the benefits today and when this moment of chaos has passed.

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