Leadership Lessons I Learned from the Dog Whisperer

I didn’t grow up with pets and only came to experience cohabitating with them in my adult life, thanks to my wife. Over the years our kids have had hamsters, pet snakes, and I’m sure other creatures that I have tried to forget about..., but my favorite pets by far have been our dogs, all Dobermans until recently. I have always been fascinated by how my wife has been able to train them to ring a bell to alert us of when they would like to go outside, and how she taught them to stay out of certain parts of the house or respond to certain hand motions, and even teach them complex commands as if they understood English. I've tried my hand at getting our dogs to obey my commands and never quite understood why I was not having much success until an important training session with a dog psychologist and trainer a few weeks ago.  

You see, a few months ago we welcomed into our home a new, extremely cute Black Golden Retriever mix puppy named Blue, who, over time, began exhibiting escalating aggressive behavior and refused to do what he was commanded to do, surpassing the normal young puppy stubbornness, and requiring professional attention. Being told that the alternative to curing this seemingly incurable condition was to euthanize the dog, we found Angie at UScanine, the Atlanta Dog Whisperer, and signed him up for a two week pack immersion program, during which we, the humans in the house, had to attend two sessions to be trained ourselves. Turns out the training was 70% for us and 30% for the dog, who, by the way, is extremely well behaved now that we know how to “lead” him.

We are all incredibly grateful for Blue's transformation, but I have to say, given my interest in leadership, I am even more thrilled to have picked up a nugget or two about leadership from this experience. The fundamental learning I took away was that I had been trying to lead the dogs as I lead teams of humans, and that simply does not work, here's why: 

Distinctions between a servant leader and an alpha dog


Are you ready for the plot twist? The greatest lesson I learned from the dog whisperer had nothing to do with our dog, Blue. It was the realization that just as I was oblivious as to why my human leadership methods weren’t working on the dogs, there are still way too bosses out there whose approach is more inline with the alpha dog in a pack rather than a leader of people.  These are the benevolent dictators who are super nice to their people and throw them the proverbial bone and protect them if they obey the boss. People in organizations who have this type of boss are generally happy to have a leader who takes care of them, but if you dig a bit deeper you can see that their seeming reverence for the leader comes from a place of fear not admiration, and their satisfaction comes from knowing where the boundaries are and knowing that as long as they don’t overstep their bounds, they are safe. These leaders, at best, get compliance, but they will never generate full commitment or create a thriving organization.

Just as I was oblivious as to why my human leadership methods weren’t working on the dogs, there are still way too many alpha dogs out there trying to lead teams of people.

Do you know anyone who practices these characteristics?

My experience tells me you won’t have to look too far to think of someone in your circles who does. The more difficult question is whether you practice any of these approaches from time to time.

Whether you have direct reports or peers who look up to you, or you hope to be in a leadership position someday, it is beneficial to ponder the distinctions listed above and pick one or two areas that you intend to get better at. This week, discuss this topic with people who are willing to give you honest feedback on your style. Keep in mind that you judge yourself by your intentions and others by their behavior, and it is always harder to be objective when it comes to evaluating your own behavior. If you find yourself confessing other people’s sins, either provide your feedback to them directly or get your attention off of them and back on you and what you could do differently to be an even more effective leader.

Have a great week! As always, I would love to hear about your victories and/or challenges. Please leave your comments below or send me an email at amir@theghannadgroup.com.

PS. For my fellow dog lovers, a picture of our dogs, Cooper and Blue, for you below:


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