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What Pepper the dog can teach us about Leadership.

In December 2020, Blue Mercury Leadership brought on a new employee, four legged, diligent, hard working Pepper into our family. She is our now almost 6 month old Hungarian Vizsla.

Whilst I am no expert at dog training, I like to think I know a few things about training and developing humans…

There are many parallels that we as humans can learn from dogs, around trust, love, and connection. I am more interested in what we can learn about leadership from dog training.

Hopefully this will give you something to think about, or at least a laugh into the last 6 months of my life.

Number 1: Why the heck are we doing this?

Training Pepper means going outside everyday, working on sit, stay and come, in a whole bunch of circumstances.

We can be playing with a tennis ball and a person comes round the corner, I quickly have to change tact to force a sit, to ensure that person in the lovely white trousers or beige coat doesn’t end up with big muddy pawprint designs.

But from Pepper’s perspective, it can often seem like a quiz that she may or may not be ready for. “Why are you asking me to sit while we are playing ball?” A perfectly reasonable question.

It’s the same in business. Business leaders are often strategic thinkers who know exactly where they need to go, and how to get there. However, are we remembering to tell people why? Or are we just expecting them to understand?

Sometimes we are forced to change direction suddenly (COVID anyone?). How are you at taking people on that journey with you, are you explaining to them why? Sometimes resistance to change can be just a lack of understanding, so ensuring communication of your ‘why’ will help smooth the transition.

Number 2: Hey Boss, I don’t get it.

Unfortunately, human reasoning does not apply all that well to canine intelligence. There have been many times I have tried to reason with Pepper, have proper human conversations about why her behaviour is not acceptable. (Which my husband thinks are hilarious).

As her human, I expect that if I read all the dog training manuals and I ask her once, she should just get it. Right? Seems reasonable?

Let us apply that to work life, does it seem reasonable to just say something once and expect everyone to just ‘get it’?

People learn in different ways, have different experience and educational backgrounds, they have cultural and gender lenses that make things look different. Do we think that one way of communicating fits everyone? I certainly do not.

Just because you are the boss, this does not mean you don’t have to work on communicating to everyone at the level and style that suits them.

If you think they don’t get it, be humble and check for understanding.

Number 3: Make up your mind! What do you want?

Living in Queenstown means there is a high probability in bumping into someone I know on a walk. When this happens, I end up in a total pickle trying to get Pepper to ‘behave’.

Sit! Sit! Come! Off! Leave it! Down! (Oh, hi Lisa…how’s it going?) I said OFF! SIT!” All the while I am shifting positions, yanking on her leash, trying to manoeuvre Pepper’s lead out of whatever tangle she’s got herself into.

I know, this is not the right approach, but I think we can all agree, we have all done it. Physical and verbal cues are flying all over the show, and right past her without making the least bit of difference.

We have all got one person in the office that seems to explode with ideas, problems, tasks or changes. Every time you see them, they rattle off a whole bunch of things they want you to accomplish. It’s often directionless and almost always stressful and unproductive.

Do you manage that person? Are you that person?

The intention is not to stifle their passion, but think about how you can harness that power so they can prioritise thinking and communication to get the best possible outcome without overwhelming others in the team.

Number 4: Finally, Treats.

Pepper will do anything for treats, but she also loves praise, ear scratches and a belly pat. We celebrate everything, even if two seconds before she has peed on the floor, the next thing we can celebrate we will.

Both in training life and in business life, humans are hard-wired to notice problems and imperfections. It takes a lot of practice to learn to notice (and reinforce) all the tiny, good things our dogs (and our people) do – even when we know that the more we reinforce the behaviours we want, the more the dog (and our teams) will do them.

In New Zealand, we are terrible for ignoring or downplaying our successes. Tall Poppy syndrome has crushed our cultural horn tooting ability. Enough is enough. If you have done something great, toot your horn, find yourself a cheerleader and then, treat yourself.

As a leader the same goes for your team, give praise where praise is due and know exactly what type of treats your team respond to!

Good luck! Every day is a new opportunity to learn something new!

At Blue Mercury Leadership, we are big fans in helping leaders connect with their people on a more honest, passionate and intentional way.

If this is something that you or your team would like to understand more, please get in touch at our website we would love to help.


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