Leadership Lessons From My Dog

If you have a pet you know they can claim a special place in your heart. A few weeks ago my wife and I experienced a loss in our family when after seventeen years, our little wiener dog, Gretchen, passed away. If you’ve grown close to a pet you know the hole that can leave in your heart.

Gretchen had a good life but it didn’t start out that way. We rescued her at age three from a breeder. After being a breeding mom, her usefulness was over. She lacked social skills and was the runt of the litter. When we discovered her, she was the only dog left to be adopted. She had been rejected by every other buyer, but we took her in. Despite her broken early life she blossomed into the most wonderful loving dog we could have hoped for. I realized that her story could be the story of many people I’ve been asked to lead in my career. But did I have the same compassion and patience with them that I had with her, or would I pass them by too?

As I processed her loss I thought of the many lessons and virtues she modeled for me. I began to think about how much we as leaders can learn from our loyal companions.  Without speaking a word she modeled lessons for us every day, lessons that could make our work environments and our worlds a better place if we’d just follow her examples. Here are a few she taught me that I’ll always remember.

Forgiveness – We mouth the words forgive and forget. But how often do we live it. Gretchen truly forgot. Her attitude toward us wasn’t based on past experiences. She knew how I felt about her and framed her response based on my potential, not my occasional failures. What she taught me was not to harbor grudges, but to lead individuals based on their potential, not just their past behavior. The only way to build deep and enduring relationships is to forgive and then forget.

Attitude of appreciation – While Gretchen’s desire was to always be with us, we left her most days as we headed off to work. Gretchen could have let us know how disappointed she was with us leaving her each day, but she didn’t. When we returned home, instead of displaying her displeasure, she celebrated our return with enthusiasm and an attitude of gratitude. How often, when we don’t get our way in business, do we find it in us to celebrate what we can of the situation?  Or do we complain to the boss or our coworkers? Maintaining the right attitude about our circumstances can make work and life a more positive experience for everyone.

Resilience – Gretchen came to us with a chip on her shoulder. Because of her upbringing she was distrustful of us and behaved badly in the beginning. But despite her shortcomings, we didn’t give up on her.  With coaching and nurturing she was able to overcome her negative behavior and gave up her victim mentality. Many people come into our lives and work groups who’ve had tough beginnings. Their personal lives or work experiences may have been one of hurt, loss, abandonment or abuse. It’s only natural that they would rebel and distrust. The easy path would be to give up on them, to fire fast and move on. But often, the toughest people can blossom into great individuals with the right coaching and nurturing. Certainly, don’t lower your standards and don’t ignore poor behavior, but sometimes we’ve got to step into the problem and invest ourselves in the “replaceables” to find the gems.

Gretchen was happiest when we were happy. She thrived on the attention and appreciation we gave her. She could feel that we really cared about her. In any work environment the highest principle is that it’s all about the people. If your people are purposefully engaged and believe you truly care about them they will do great things for you. They will walk through glass for you. I firmly believe that the more sincere appreciation you show, the harder people will work and the more loyal they will be.

As I worked through my loss, a friend sent me this note: “It came to me that every time I lose a dog they take a piece of my heart with them, and every new dog who comes into my life gifts me with a piece of their heart. If I live long enough, all the components of my heart will be dog, and I will become as generous and loving as they are.” Great lessons to lead by. Great lessons to live by.

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