Leadership lessons from my dogs

I’m privileged to be assisting two clients who are putting in great effort to grow cultures of leadership.  I’m not sure if it’s a question of synchronicity that these two clients, separately and independently, have realised that the best way to breathe life into their visions is by nurturing a culture where every person, not just those with a title, is prepared to take up leadership.  Perhaps they have been around long enough to know that leadership (getting things done) is an emergent dynamic; an ongoing conversation, if you like; within their organisation, and not just a set of competencies enacted only by those who manage others.  Maybe they have been fortunate enough to work with other leaders who acknowledged that there are many in an organisation who have moments of being the navigator; even though there is just one captain; and that navigation is also leadership.

Or maybe they have dogs.

Charlie and Veronica

I have two dogs, both endless sources of comedy moments.  They also have a deep knowing of leadership hard-wired into them.  Dogs are pack animals and they know (not in any kind of conscious way, of course) that survival depends on effective leadership and working together.  They need to know who the Alpha is and where everyone else fits within the pack hierarchy.  When I learnt to speak ‘Dog’ years ago by reading The Dog Listener, I realised that if I’m to be the Alpha, I will need to convey this using language that dogs understand.

As well as learning how to speak Dog, I also learnt one other really vital lesson.  This is the biggie.  This is probably one of the most important things that all leaders need to get; and I don’t just mean people with a leadership title, I mean anyone who wants to be leading and influencing.

You. Are. Always. On.

I watch my dogs constantly and I have noticed they are also watching me constantly.  Constantly.  They need regular reminding (or reassurance) of who is in control.  They need to know that it’s OK to take a nap or to play with each other and cut loose because Big-Dog-That-Stands-On-Two-Paws is managing things, is watching for danger, is looking relaxed.

So what are they taking notice of?  Everything.  Everything means something.  When BDTSOTP’s eyes are not widened in fear and his forehead is relaxed, it means there is no imminent danger.  When he yawns or his musculature is loose, it means ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’.  When Comedy Dogs bark at a bird in a nearby tree (clearly this is a danger and worthy of a noisy heads-up) and BDTSOTP joins in with loud-noise-coming-from-mouth, it means ‘Keep Making a Fuss’.  In the heat of the moment, I sometimes forget that dogs, even these two clever Border Collies, do not speak English.  So everything means something, but my shouting at them to be quiet, in English, does not result in quiet dogs.  What I am trying to convey comes across as more barking, to their minds, so they keep going.  Gary Larson made this point beautifully:

Leaders’ behaviours are scrutinised as carefully as my Alpha Dog efforts by my Comedy Dogs.  Some leaders acknowledge this, but in a slightly skewed manner.  They believe that the overt  behaviours are the ones that matter.  They neglect the less obvious, more unconscious behaviours.  Everything means something.  What message does it send out when the executive leadership team endorses a values statement that highlights ‘Integrity’ as a key organisational value, yet is seen to be mendacious and under-handed in its affairs?  As I’ve suggested in a previous blog post about living values, congruence and alignment happens every single moment in every single day.

At Marcus Child’s recent presentation at the Auckland All TEC Day, he highlighted this phenomenon.  Essentially, leader behaviours can be classified as formal or informal, conscious or unconscious.  Formal, conscious behaviours include things that we would typically attribute to what a leader does: speeches, announcements, vision and mission statements and the like.  Approximately 80-85% of a typical leader’s time and effort dedicated to communicating with their teams is spent doing this formal, conscious stuff.

In the informal, unconscious category of behaviour sits things like body language, facial expression, attitude, energy, style, emotional connection and the like.  None of this would feature in a job description or KPI’s, but they are part of the whole person who is the leader.  Perhaps because none of this is documented or part of a leader’s KPI’s, only about 5-7% of a typical leader’s time and effort in communicating with others goes towards these behaviours.

Guess which ones people notice?  All of them.  All the time.  Like my dogs.

However, just like only some of what I do is actually paid attention to and understood by my dogs, only some of what a leader does (or doesn’t do) is understood and paid attention to by employees.  Employees seem to pay only about 3-5% of their attention to the formal, conscious leader behaviours.  Something like 85-90% of their attention goes to the informal, unconscious behaviours of their leaders.  Notice the skew?  More attention paid to the behaviours that leaders attend to less.  Less attention paid to the behaviours that leaders attend to most.

My point, again, is that you are always on.  People are noticing what you say and how you say it, what you do and how you do it, as well as what you don’t say or don’t do.

Because this stuff is unconscious, it is through an ongoing process of self-awareness raising that you become more conscious of your behaviours.  The question for many people these days is not “Do I want to be a leader?”  Because of the relationships you have in your organisation, or the expertise you have gained over the years, or the influence you exert or even your job title, the question is more likely to be, “What kind of leader do I want to be?”  You are already a leader; pretending otherwise is folly.  People are watching you.  Constantly.   And they are watching the stuff that you probably pay least attention to yourself.  Whether you like it or nor, you are always on.


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