Leader of the Pack

For as long as I can remember, I have had a strong affinity for canines. In fact, I haven’t ever been without at least one, and don’t ever imagine a time in my life when I will. In keeping with that trend I recently became the proud adopted father to two dogs – Weimaraners. You have probably heard about how utterly insane this particular breed of canine can be. You may have even experienced it firsthand; either way their reputation precedes them. I tend to sway from popular opinion and think that people often err on the side of exaggeration, so I went with the mentality of “how bad can it really be?” and took the leap. The diplomatic way to summate the result of that leap is to say that I have learned a lot in these past months. I have learned a lot about patience, when to laugh, when to scream, when to cry, and also just how quickly my hair can morph into the color of the very beasts causing the change. Oddly enough, however, I have also been able to draw some conclusions about an unexpected topic: leadership.

As mentioned above there are two of them: a boy and a girl. Note that I did not say a male and a female. The terms boy and girl imply some degree of adolescence or immaturity, and although these dogs are well into adulthood, I think boy and girl more aptly describe them. In an effort to protect their anonymity I will henceforth refer to them as Bonnie and Clyde, but their real names are Shiner and Luna. To be fair, I am not sure I have ever met two creatures with better intentions than Bonnie and Clyde. They are incredibly sweet and good-natured; it’s just that they have some wires loose. Or maybe even all of their wires loose. And maybe not just loose, but severed and hanging.

So what do these two schizophrenic, hyperactive, sociopathic creatures have to do with leadership? To begin with, I am in a position to lead these two beasts. I have had to step in as a secondary authority figure and become the alpha male (or so I have to tell myself) of the pack. If you were to ask Clyde, he would probably tell you something different, but he can neither write nor speak English, so I win. To date Clyde and I hold many long standing battles, one of which is the trash. The dog loves, moreover needs, to get into the trash. He has figured out how to use the foot release (I think his cunning wire is the only one still connected) to open the lid and stick his head in, and if he still can’t get what he is after, he will just knock the whole can over and enjoy. I have yet to learn how to teach the animal not to exhibit this behavior, so as a leader in this situation I feel like I have effectively failed.

I have analyzed the aforementioned failure for months and tried in vain to formulate different ways to work with Clyde, but I had a moment this past weekend that could only be described as an epiphany. It was Saturday afternoon and he had rummaged the kitchen trash. In lieu of the normal scolding, Clyde and I had a moment of unspoken conversation marked by about 30 seconds of locked eyes and puzzled facial expression. It went something like this:

Me: “Clyde, why do you keep knocking over the trash? You know you I am just going to put it back in the can and you are going to get in trouble. Why do you do this?”
Clyde: “Why do you keep standing the can back up, picking up the trash, and scolding me? You know I am just going to knock it right back over when you turn around.”

That dialogue, while it may seem trivial, changed my frame of mind. Occupationally, I am surrounded daily by conversations about leadership. What is good leadership? What makes it? What traits coincide with it? What often arises is that leadership starts with values. In order to effectively lead individuals, a person must find a way to align his or her values with those being led. Such an alignment helps to form a bond that motivates people to work toward and achieve a common goal. Historically, those individuals who have led successfully, frequently did so by using their skills to make others believe what they believed. With certain exceptions, of course, those who have attempted to lead through intimidation failed, and failed rather quickly. An iron fist certainly has its place, but it can rapidly cause a breakdown in cohesion that will lead to resentment, or even mutiny. We have all been surrounded by people in leadership positions all of our lives (note that I didn’t say leaders). Thinking back, which of those individuals stick out in your mind? To me it isn’t the screaming football coach, tyrannical geometry teacher, or angry manager. It is those individuals who led me in such a way that I didn’t even realize I was being led; those individuals who held a strong passion for something and found a way to make that passion contagious. Exposure to that type of leadership is more than motivating, it is inspiring, and long-lasting.

What struck me this past Saturday afternoon was that Clyde and I are suffering from a terrible misalignment of values. It is not that he acts this way because he likes to anger me (at least so I think), in fact I know he doesn’t like to get in trouble. It is just that one of his core values is food. And it is not that I like to become angry and scold him, it’s just that I value cleanliness and order. The result of this misalignment is a pretty big problem, as Clyde is a dog, and a German dog at that. I don’t speak dogese or German, so this is going to be a constant struggle. I could try to adapt to his way of thinking, but that would just leave me overweight with a messy kitchen. To make a long story short, Clyde is going to win this battle and I just need to resign to cleaning up trash for the rest of his days. Leading people is different, however, as we can understand spoken language and have a stronger ability to reason. People enjoy leadership through inspiration, and a sure fire way to inspire is to tap into an individual’s values and drivers…and the first step in tapping into them is to identify them.