what dogs can teach us about leadership

There are many similarities between humans and dogs. Enough that it’s easier to list contrasts rather than similarities. Fundamentally, we’re very much the same. Dogs and humans have a social dominance hierarchy. In the dog world, it’s a bit more simple, and yet many people (including many dog owners) don’t understand the behavior of their canis lupus familiaris in conveying where they are (and where you are) in the pack.

By far the best and easiest to understand explanation on all this comes from Cesar Millan, the Dog Whisperer, whose show explains these concepts in simple terms. What Millan can’t explain so easily (out of politeness to viewers) is why he’s able to control dogs so much better than most. This is something even Malcolm Gladwell has written about (in “What the Dog Saw”), wherein Gladwell describes the “presence” that Millan exerts around dogs and even humans. I’ll attempt to explicate this “presence” with my own observations in a moment.

One of the most feared breeds around is the Rottweiler. Easily weighing in at 100 Lbs (45 Kg) or more, the Rott is a formidable dog. Further, Rotts have natural guarding instinct, making them the bane of the intruder or evil-doer. (And yet, Rotts are one of the most adorable dogs I’ve ever seen.)

If you’ve seen neither Millan nor a Rott, check out this Dog Whisperer episode. Notice how, contrary to conventional wisdom, it is the human that is getting the training, not the dog. We apply our own behavior and higher-order cognition to dogs, a habit that leads to a complete misunderstanding of our furry friends.

To give an example, read this silly article, arguing against the encroachment of dogs into the human world. Much to the disappointment of the writer of the article, a big dog, the Doberman, did something truly disturbing:

The dog pushed his long face toward my hand, the canine equivalent of a high five. And so—in the same way it’s rude to leave a high-fiver hanging, especially if the high-fiver has big teeth and a strong jaw—I was expected to pet him. I ran my hand across his head half-heartedly. I guess I was fairly sure he wouldn’t snap and bite me, but stranger things have happened—for instance, dogs snapping and biting people all the time.

How frightening for him. If only he knew the behavior of dogs. That Doberman went right up to him and offered affection, much to the disgust and apprehension of the guy. In fact, the Dobe (also one of the favorite breeds) was showing social submission to the guy. The pup was behaving appropriately, not menacingly.

Dogs are pack animals. For you cat people out there, dogs form packs (these packs include humans), and the position of the dog as well as the other pack members if continually on the mind of any dog. For a Doberman to go up to someone and behave in this way illustrates the good and proper socialization of the dog. Socialization of any dog to humans is a good idea. Where dogs have not been properly socialized, they might behave inappropriately or unpredictably (typically, out of fear, manifested as fear-aggression). But this Dobe behaved politely. The pup also submitted to the guy.

How do I know this? Dominant dogs wouldn’t behave in the manner described. Any dog can be dominant or submissive in context, and this is completely natural and, usually, not at all menacing (dominance and aggression are not the same, of course). If your own dog walks in front of you on your walks, bumps into you, sits on you, etc, it is making an obvious statement regarding pack hierarchy. The submissive dog doesn’t sit on the dominant dog (or human). As humans, we have our own dominance rituals as well, a topic I’ll expound upon at a later time.

As Millan explains in his shows and his written work (he’s written multiple books), the (human) owner should be the pack leader. Note that this doesn’t mean “showing the dog who’s boss.” You shouldn’t own a dog if that’s your idea of leadership. It means simple things, like being confident, claiming your space, properly conveying what you want your dog to do and being consistent. Never does it mean losing your cool and yelling; losing control isn’t what good pack leaders do (to dogs or to fellow humans, I should add).

Owning a dog and being the pack leader is good experience to being a good leader of people as well. But is leadership really something that can be learned? To dogs, leadership is certainly an attribute dogs are born with, but human networks are a bit more intricate. Someone who would have been the clear leader (due to social dominance characteristics) out in the prairie might not be the leader in an office setting. But then again, “leader” at work has a different meaning, so let’s narrow our focus here to natural leadership characteristics, something that humans can cultivate, regardless of formal rank.

Gladwell described Millan as having “presence.” Let me explain. Natural leaders keep their cool and either don’t get stressed as easily or at least don’t manifest it. Typically, when we feel stress, we experience momentary emotions like apprehension or on-going states like anxiety. It’s reflected in our voices (more rapid speech, higher pitch), in our body language (defensive stance, with arms covering our torso, blocking part of our face with clenched fist), and in our face (tense muscle contractions, furrowed brows, expressivity, and sometimes obviously fake masking smiles). Our autonomic nervous system responds to our negative thoughts by releasing stress hormones, raising blood pressure and heart rate. In essence, we give off signals of weakness.

People and dogs are not so different in our responses. Dogs very rapidly sense this weakness. Some dogs will respond aggressively to strangers giving off these weak signals, hence Millan’s suggestion to show “calm assertiveness.” People are smarter and more nuanced (though not necessarily better at “reading” humans than dogs, I might add). People feel uncomfortable around someone who is anxious even if they don’t admit or or are even aware of it. That is in large part because of our empathy; we feel the emotions of others to some extent and mirror those emotions. Negative affect (emotion) in others causes us to feel miserable as well.

Masking our stress might be beneficial in such cases, but it’s fraught with problems. Most people aren’t skilled actors; watch any small-town local commercial to see just what would happen if the average person became an actor for a day. One reason I shutter when I see advice in business columns suggesting that people use “power body language” is that, for most people, it will “look fake.” Even people with no formal training in psychology will likely have their bullshit meter tripped when they see someone acting contrary to how they’re feeling.

This is why not everyone is the Dog Whisperer. This is why not every boss is a leader (and why those terms are by no means synonymous). Just as most dogs aren’t natural alphas, most people aren’t natural alphas either. They’re leaders by virtue of their title or perhaps their knowledge rather than due to their personality or affective style.

All hope isn’t lost. We humans are pretty versatile. We won’t all be great, natural leaders. But we don’t need to be; after all, most people aren’t.

So how should the average person cultivate leadership skills? I’ve come up with the following checklist.


  • We should acknowledge our strengths and be comfortable with our positions of authority. A lot of people in such positions aren’t comfortable with their own power. While such modesty is virtuous in some contexts, it’s not conducive to inspiring followership. Leaders owe it to their followers to inspire the confidence of those under their command.
  • Leaders are comfortable with their weaknesses. In contrast, bad leaders are defensive about their weaknesses, often redirecting that feeling of inadequacy (toward subordinates, of course).
  • Leaders modulate their emotions (emotional control). Both positive and negative emotions are held in check, such that neither effusive happiness nor excessive anxiety are obvious.
  • Natural and unmanipulated body language is also important. Natural leaders don’t think about their posture, if they should fold their arms, etc. Doing so would be too cognitively demanding and, anyway, would look fake.
  • Leaders focus on goals, not egos. The good leaders do, anyway. That focus is key and helpful in doing the emotional modulation previously described. When you’re focused on your own ego (your position in the pack, to use the dog analogy), then you’re not the leader anymore.


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