Thursday, September 13, 2012

Of Leadership and Love

I’m lucky to work in a hospital that really pushes for nursing leadership. Nurse comprise the largest portion of the medical workforce, so it makes sense to encourage nurses to have a part in the direction and managing of the system. I’m not much of a leader myself - I prefer my humble peon status – but I think the topic of leadership is fascinating. What makes a leader good? What makes a leader fantastic? How do you know if people are following you or chasing you? (Hint: are they carrying pitchforks?)

During all of the leadership trainings, a required activity seems to be the group listing of qualities a good leader possesses. Traits like kindness, fairness, patience, good communication skills, a sense of humor, compassion, humility, intelligence, and courage. I am always intrigued by this activity because “leadership” has come to mean something rather different in dog training. It seems that in the context of canines, leadership is just a more politically correct way of saying that you are dominant or alpha – two words that I have never seen come up when discussing human leadership.

The connotation of leadership in dog training implies that if your dog is not exceptionally behaved or shows any sort of personality, it reflects poorly on you as their leader. Dogs that chase squirrels? Why can’t you control them? Dogs growls at people? Why aren’t you telling him to stop? Dog won’t sit when you tell her? Why aren’t you making her sit? If you're a good enough leader, your dog won't misbehave. 

In my opinion, the leadership of canines seems to be less “fun” and more “terrible burden.”

Human leadership workshops rarely (never that I can remember, but I’m not perfect yet) talk about “making” people do anything. Humans seem to understand on at least a logical level that you can’t force anyone to do anything. If only we understood that being able to force dogs – or any other living thing – into a behavior is also just an illusion!

Further, there is an implication that if we can’t use force, then we are powerless over the behavior of others. Try to force me to do something, and you will find out how stubborn and pig headed I can be. But as a professional peon, I am not difficult to lead. The people I follow and respect the most are the ones who know me the best. Who know the situations I will flourish in and who place me in situations were my particular skill set will excel. These are the leaders I trust will not give me an objective I cannot achieve. And if I were to get in over my head, I trust that these people will listen and then do something if I were to tell them that I’m in over my head.

Do you see where I’m going with this?

Leadership is not force or dominance or being alpha. It’s knowing people. It’s understanding that maybe your old dog doesn’t want to sit because her knees are bothering her – but she’d be happy to shake paws with you. It’s not putting the dog that growls at people into a crowded room because “he’s gotta learn to deal with it.” It’s trust and strength and creativity and setting the situation up so that everyone can succeed – without letting your ego get in the way.  

Sounds tricky and thankless, doesn’t it?

But leadership is balanced by friendship. Many people, including many great leaders, seem to believe that these are mutual exclusive. I am skeptical. The leaders I follow most wholeheartedly are the ones I can meet with over apple pancakes and discuss dogs and boyfriends and jobs and the nitty-gritty of making the Next Big Thing completely spectacular. The idea seems to be that you can’t reprimand or be critical of people you have an emotional attachment to. And I can see where this would be difficult from the leader’s perspective. As a lifelong follower, though, the people who’s honest criticism I internalize and value the most is that of my friends. The people who know me, and who I know have our best interests at heart.

How terrible to be your dog’s leader, but not their friend!

After all, isn’t that why we love dogs? To open ourselves to their silliness, their devotion and loyalty, their companionship in times of strife, and their joy in times of happiness. If I had to chose, I’d rather be their friend than their leader. To share the couch with them and a good book and a cup of coffee on a rainy day. In short, to do nothing with them but be happy.

In my book, being happy with my dogs is more important than any of that other stuff.

Photo by Paige.


  1. "The leaders I follow most wholeheartedly are the ones I can meet with over apple pancakes and discuss dogs and boyfriends and jobs and the nitty-gritty of making the Next Big Thing completely spectacular." --Moved me to tears. But, in the meantime, I would like to point out that to many of us, you offer leadership not by saying but by doing. In our world, not your professional world, it is with great joy that I say you are a leader in the areas in which you excel, because your joy in being in a friendship with your dogs, is feverishly catchy. So..."Do as I do, not as I say." :-)

  2. Leadership was discussed and written about in great depth when I got my degree in Org. Leadership. Yet, we just touched the surface of the subject. I, for one, think that you are indeed a leader. Perhaps you aren't at work but excellent followers are a treasure. One doesn't need to lead masses to be a "leader".
    I often look to your posts for wisdom, guidance and reassurance. "...if your dog is not exceptionally behaved or shows any sort of personality, it reflects poorly on you as their leader." Boy-oh-boy do I feel the weight of that statement. I also feel the weight of making sure my dog(s)are ambassadors for the breed. I don't want to be the cause of any further negative perception. Your posts help me to relax and let some things go and concentrate of the "friendship" part of my relationship with my furry boy.

  3. I read your blog religiously... This is so true. Then at the end you said 'In my book,' and I just about completely freaked out. Then I realized you aren't writing a book (that I know about) but I think you should.

  4. This is a thought provoking post for me. Although I completely agree with the majority of it, I still need to wrap my brain around a couple bits and pieces. Mainly, my first impression is that comparing human and canine leadership can be misleading. Maybe I have to think about my beliefs around free will. I think humans (well, particularly adults) have it, but I'm not so sure about dogs (or kids for that matter). Hmmm....


    1. Kellie, I think it depends a lot on whether you feel choice is intrinsic or extrinsic. Do we (or our dogs) make choices ourselves, or do others control our choices? Personally, I feel that choice, and thereby free will, is intrinsic. Even if I’m choosing between two shitty options, it’s still my choice to make. If I call B, and she turns around, looks at me, and keeps doing what she’s doing, then she has made a choice – even if I go over there and force her to do what ever it was I want her to do. It’s still her choice whether or not to work with me, and how much she’s going to resist. Those are my thoughts, anyway.

  5. Dogs, like human children, are dependent beings, which puts a responsibility on the adults/parents/guardians to be "in charge" to some degree. Setting up the environment, perhaps focusing choices and setting them up for success, can help make the world a more calm place. You are not putting adults and dependent beings in the same category, but some folks confuse the issue.
    Thanks for writing.
    Lynnda L in Mpls