Saturday, January 28, 2012

Leadership Lessons I Learned From My Dogs

I know there are a lot of useless "everything I need to know..." lists including plenty about what people have "learned" from their dogs. In fact, there's even an entire management book on it. There may be a few useful entries on these lists, but usually, they feel as though the authors were adding filler to reach some specific number of lessons or to make the list as big as possible.

At risk of adding yet another entry to the over-abundance, I assembled my own list of leadership lessons that I learned from my dogs. Each item in the list is experience-driven, originating in the confluence of personal reflection on leadership experiences at work and trying to take care of my dogs. Many of them came from morning and evening walks when the dogs are trying to find a good place to poop and I am preparing mentally for the day ahead or winding down from the day now passed. This is why there are precisely 7 entries, rather than 5 or 10 or 100.

These are the genuine lessons in leadership my dogs taught me:
  1. Encourage desired behavior by using rewards. The best way I have found to get my dogs to sit on command is to reward them when they do it. This is called operant conditioning, in the form of positive reinforcement. The important observation is that punishment is not an tool for extracting desired behavior. The same goes for people. If you want to, for example, get people to be collaborative, the best way to do so is to reward the behavior. It is also worth understanding negative reinforcement. A product that breaks easily even though it shouldn't will result in a lot of support calls and lost customers. The pain associated with each call and lost customer is encouragement to make your product more resilient.
  2. Different rewards are appropriate at different times. Sometimes a dog needs a big, beefy treat, like when it is learning a completely new trick. Sometimes it only needs a pat on the head, like when it is performing a behavior it has internalized. With people, big rewards are needed when, for example, cultural change is initiated. Smaller rewards are needed after the desired culture has been established and the person exhibits according behavior.
  3. Punishment is appropriate to stop misbehavior. Trying to teach a dog to stay out of the street by making them come to you with a treat whenever they start to walk into the street really just teaches them that they can get a treat by walking into the street. Punishment sucks for everyone involved, but it is an effective tool for stopping undesired behavior. If you shout at a dog when it walks into the street, it will quickly learn that there is a negative consequence for this action. When people are fighting at work, the most effective way to put an immediate stop to the behavior is to punish it. To state the obvious, combining multiple stimuli is more effective than applying a single one. This risk with punishment is that when the enforcer is removed, the opportunity for the undesired behavior to return surfaces. If we stop people from fighting with punishment, then help them to observe the rewards of collaboration, we have an impact that lasts much longer.
  4. Everything is about influence. At this point, it is probably clear that the overarching statement of this post is that leadership is effective application of influence. Keep in mind that influence is not just an outbound process. My dogs try to influence me all the time. When they get in trouble, they really do make puppy eyes and it's incredibly hard to punish bad behavior when the puppy eyes are on full blast. Influence goes in all directions. At work, our peers influence us, our employees influence us, our bosses influence us, our customers influence us, our suppliers influence us, and so on.
  5. Keep on schedule and follow through with commitment. When I don't keep on schedule and follow through with my commitment to my dogs, they pee on the floor. Having a schedule makes their lives predictable, so they know when they'll get to go outside. My commitment to them is to take them out on that schedule. When I don't, I'm punished, even though the dogs aren't punishing me on purpose (at least I hope not!). When a commitment is made to an employee or customer, we must follow through. Otherwise, they will justifiably leave us. Or if they're crazy enough, they might pee on our floors.
  6. Sometime you just have to pick up poo. Dogs poop. In fact, everyone poops. As a dog owner, it's my responsibility to pick up their poop. Things don't always go right and as leaders, sometimes we have to clean up messes even if we didn't directly cause them. It comes with the territory, so if one is not okay with cleaning up from time to time, they should reconsider whether leadership is for them. And we should all keep in mind that it's perfectly fine not to be a leader! The decision depends on our aspirations, goals, and personal values. Those of us who do wish to be leaders have a responsibility to create the best situation possible, so we must use our skills of influence to reduce the occurrence of messes.
  7. Their health is important to our health. Having pets purportedly has many health benefits. I don't know if they really reduce stress (try telling me that when I'm picking up poop), but I certainly enjoy walking with them, playing with them, and telling funny stories about them. As a leader, all the people around us enhance our ability to do whatever we do. The health of a leader's career depends on the health of those around him or her. When our customers are not doing well, neither are we. When the people we work with become unhappy or sick, our capacity to work towards a goal dissipates. It is important to take care of those around us and to be a force for good in their lives.

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