Which Are You? Tyrant or Servant Leader?

I’ve noticed Louie has an odd habit when we walk. He walks on the street curb like he is walking on a balance beam. And he’s quite good! In fact, many times he will run on the curb and not miss a beat. I joked with our trainer, Zig, sometime back that we should get Louie into agility training. Zig kindly reminded me that Louie would need more obedience training before he could handle an agility class.

It was wise advice, but curiosity got the better of me. I looked into a place that has an easy-to-use obstacle course where dogs chase a lead through tunnels and over bars, and they don’t need prior training. So my granddaughter, Evi, joined Louie and I as we checked out this fun adventure.

It was evident from the start that Louie would have nothing to do with chasing a silly lead on a wire aimed at getting him to jump or run. I’m sure if the lead had a treat on it, he might have been persuaded, but that was not part of the plan. So Evi jumped into the ring and started running with him, and the two of them had a blast. That lasted one cycle until his attention went elsewhere. Evi tried to get him to chase her, but Louie was done. He clearly was not going to jump through any more hoops and in fact, desperately tried to find a way to escape.

And escape he did. He found a small opening in the fence and took off running through the outside area that didn’t appear to be enclosed. My trainer told me never to chase Louie if he gets loose because he’ll think it’s a game. But I was afraid of what could happen if he ran into the busy street. As Louie’s ears flapped in the wind and his tongue hung out to the side, the chase was on. I jumped over a small fence and ran at high speed to tackle him and bring him safely back into the ring. I did all this while yelling at Evi to stay put because I didn’t want to worry about her as well. But she was too enthralled by the sight of my running and jumping that she wasn’t going anywhere.

As we were driving home, I asked Louie, “Why do you run away from us? Do you realize if you run away I will not be behind you? You’ll be lost! Don’t you remember what it was like being on the streets all alone?” Evi chimed in with a sad face, “Yeah, Louie, that was scary. Don’t ever do that again!” I smiled as I looked at my pup through the rearview mirror, his tongue still hanging out and a big smile on his face as though he had achieved a major accomplishment. But I said, “I can’t blame you, Lou! I don’t like to jump through hoops either.” Louie sat regally staring out the window as we drove in silence toward home.

As I reflected on that incident, I realized that Louie was not going to jump through hoops or run around a path and, like most humans, he looked for the quickest escape route. I was reminded of an organization I once worked with that was one of the most toxic cultures I had ever experienced because the leader expected the employees to jump through hoops on a continual basis. What made it so toxic was that the image portrayed to the public was completely different than that of the actual culture. Every employee walked on eggshells out of fear of the employer, and they knew that if they spoke the truth, they could be out of a job.

Over the years, I have witnessed and heard about many toxic workplaces. How do you know when a culture is toxic and a leader is self-serving? It is not so easy to determine just by observing. It takes experiencing the culture and often, by the time the determination is made, the damage is done. But here are some signs:

  • People are afraid to be themselves, and honest conversations are a rarity.
  • The leader works hard at displaying a perfect image outside the organization and “talks” about how great the culture is.
  • There is a revolving door of employees (Turnover numbers can be masked).
  • There is a pattern of disgruntled employees and broken relationships.
  • The team picture changes every year because the team is totally different every year.
  • When employees leave, relationships end (heaven forbid should the outside world truly know what’s going on inside)
  • Employees are nervous and stop trying to please the leader because they know nothing ever will.
  • Words of affirmation are rarely given.
  • The leader only shares stories that cast him or her in a positive light.
  • There are small blips of successes here and there, but overall, growth is stagnant.
  • They cultivate an image to hide their insecurities and fears.
  • A self-serving leader reads this list and says, “Thank goodness I’m nothing like that.”
  • The servant leader reads this list and says, “But for the grace of God, there go I!”

I could go on, but I’m sure you get the picture. Many wonderful leaders have a servant’s heart and care more for others than themselves. And because they are servant leaders, their businesses continue to enjoy sustainable growth, and employees are recognized for their part in the success. Their employees enjoy going to work in the morning instead of getting that knotted feeling every Sunday evening because of what they have to face on Monday. The best servant leaders are those who have removed their egos, are authentic and focused on others. Be intentional about being a servant leader.

As for Louie…well, we’ll work on his agility and obedience training!

Re-establishing Who’s Alpha–And It’s Not Louie

Louie has slipped back into some of his old bad behaviors. He does not want any other dog to enter into our home. And he’s not too fond of humans walking in either, but he tolerates them. This behavior is displayed only in my home and it wears on me.

But then it occurred to me. I have been lax in my being a consistent Alpha to Louie. You see, 90% of the time, Louie is a very well-behaved dog, and he minds well. And for this reason, I have let some little bad behaviors slip through the crack. This creates a chain effect of Louie thinking he can get by with those bad behaviors; getting on the furniture, getting into the trash, getting on the beds. Because he sometimes gets by with that behavior and other times not, this causes confusion for Louie. And when he’s confused, he operates in fear. It’s my fault that Louie is confused and feels the need to be territorial and protective.

One of the toughest principles for me to grasp over the years since Louie first came to live with me was how to be the Alpha in Louie’s “pack,” and my trainer was clear that I was a weak Alpha. My lack of strong leadership confused Louie, forcing him into the position of having to step up and lead, and that issue still exists today.

Before Louie and I found each other, I never gave much thought to asserting my role as Alpha Dog. Consequently, my dogs assumed that role, and I let them. It didn’t seem to matter because they were small and harmless. And by the time I got home after a long day at work, I was tired of being Alpha, so I let them boss me around. But that approach doesn’t work for Louie, and it does not work for people

There is so much that goes into being a good Alpha; being consistent, providing safety, setting appropriate boundaries, giving genuine and abundant praise, and offering a necessary correction. Again, all of those things must be rooted in trust and undergirded by love.

I remember back four years ago when the trainer first met us, Louie behaved very badly, and I was at my wit’s end. The trainer described my body language as defeated. Louie responded to this with fear and confusion. The words that moved me off the dime were, “I’ve seen you do leadership seminars, now you’ve got to do what you do in those workshops. Exude confidence. He needs reassurance that you know what you’re doing.”

Really? For my dog? I had made the common mistake of assuming that he would instinctively know that I’m the boss – simply because I’m the human, I’m larger than he, and I think more “knowledgeable.” The trainer taught me that it is about my level of confidence in where I’m going and what needs to be accomplished. That confidence is in knowing what’s best for Louie, giving him firm direction, and drawing out his very best behavior.

As leaders, our assumptions about others and situations around us unintentionally confuse our team. We have expectations that are not always clearly communicated, and then when not met, cause disappointment on our part and confusion on the part of others. Ken Blanchard often refers to this as seagull management, meaning a manager who only interacts with employees when a problem arises. This style of leadership involves hasty decisions about things of which they have little understanding, resulting in messy situations for others to clean up.

Being a strong leader is about so much more than claiming an impressive title, wearing expensive clothes and appearing important. It is about:

  • Owning the leadership role we’ve been given
  • Resisting the urge to react out of our own fears and insecurities
  • Addressing problems before we lose our cool
  • Effectively communicating the vision and seeking to understand our team

Dogs and people need a humble leader, not a bossy dictator. I’ve committed to leading with intentionality, clear vision and goals. I encourage you to do the same – whether you’re leading canines or humans.

I am happy to say I have assumed my role as Alpha of the house. Louie needs and desires my approval much more than he wants to be alpha, and consequently, Louie is a much happier pup. I’ve had to wrestle him to the ground once or twice to make him understand submission, a method I do NOT recommend for your team. But it is clear that he understands and appreciates my love and leadership. And I now know the value of being consistent in my leadership role.

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