How does one define leadership?
I have tried, with limited success, to come up with a workable definition. It’s sort of like talking about love… What is love? How does one define it? What does it look like?
Here’s my best stab at defining leadership. Leadership results when “one” consistently provides appropriate support and direction for “the other”. If you do a good job of it, then when “the other” find themselves in an uncomfortable (and novel) situation, they will turn to you for a solution.
Sometimes that’s a good thing, and sometimes not! Because when the “one” is trying to develop “the other” as a strong and self-confident being, then offering choice is actually more important. But sometimes offering choice isn’t a very good idea, because the wrong choice could lead to unfortunate emotional consequences. That’s why I say “appropriate” support…don’t offer more leadership than is required at a given time.
Now that I have philosophized for a while, let’s take a quiz:
- You are in a building and there is an earthquake. People are screaming and injured everywhere. You are trapped in the building with a small child who is in your care at that time. Neither of you are injured. What does the adult do? What might leadership look like in this scenario?
- Allow the child to walk up to injured people and observe blood and gore.
- Start screaming “we’re all going to die!’
- Stand still and do nothing, hoping the child will make a good choice not to look around or start screaming.
- Take control of the situation and structure the child. Block their view. Speak calmly. “Sit in that chair.” etc.
- You are with a reactive dog in public. Your dog sees another dog coming close and prior experience suggests that this situation may well end badly. What does a leader do? What might leadership look like in this scenario? (Hint: What would you do with a child in the same situation?)
- Allow the dog to bark and lunge at the end of the leash, working up into a froth, without reacting.
- Start screaming “No no bad dog!”
- Stand still and hope the dog will make a good choice (Hint: “Hope” is not a training technique)
- Take control of the situation and structure the dog – remove the dog one way or the other; calm your voice, etc.
In the first scenario, I hope that everyone recognizes that the correct answer is to take control of the situation and structure the child. We do not expect children to make good decisions when they are in over their head. We recognize that preventing the start of a panic is a good thing to do! And we don’t waste time about it either; we get involved instantly before things go badly.
Adults are natural leaders when children are involved so in an emergency/unknown situation, not only will the adult naturally take control, but the child will naturally look to the adult for direction. That’s because the child has learned, in their short lifetime, to look to adults when they need help. (One hopes but I digress….)
Leadership is taking control when control needs to be taken – when choice (if offered) is likely to go badly. If you act as a leader, reliably and over time, “the other” will begin to look to you when unsure of how to solve a problem independently. That is a very good place to be.
That answer should help you solve the second problem.
Offer leadership when you recognize that there is only one choice that will support the long-term, emotional well being of the dog. And when leadership is not required, allow your dog choice as much as possible. If you do this consistently then your dog will look to you when they need help – and that’s a good place to be.
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I have wondered about leadership for a while now, and one thing I always am pondering: Do leaders lead, or do followers follow? In other words, if you get a bunch of individuals together, is the one who emerges as the leader the one who puts the most effort into leading, or is it just the one that everyone else agrees to go along with? I’ve thought about this ever since watching Meerkat Manor, where two subordinate females were vying to take over the alpha female role upon the death of the alpha, and it all seemed to come down to the majority of the group deciding to follow one, and not the other, for no reason that I could figure out. They didn’t try to bully the others into submission, nor did they seem to go out of their way to curry favor with the others. It’s just that when one wanted the gang to go right, and the other wanted to go left, the rest went left. Which was later sealed in place by the newly dominant female killing and eating the other female’s newborn pups.
Extrapolating further, I assume that there is a continuum of “leadership” drive, traits, ability, call it what you will. If we say that 1 is the lowest on the scale, and 10 is the highest, then, if you have a bunch of 4s and throw a 6 in with them, the 6 will become the leader because the 4s don’t really want to be. But if you take that same 6 and throw them in with a bunch of 8s, will they just as happily follow the 8s as the 4s followed them? Because it’s been my experience that most people, at least, really don’t want to be in charge. They want the trappings that go along with being charge: the money, and fame, and flashy cars, and lots of sex, but not the responsibility and decision-making aspects of being in charge. And I wonder how true that is across the animal kingdom in general.
So many interesting thoughts here!
In my opinion, and the way I teach leadership to others, it is a combination of all of these things.
I believe that in any given dynamic between two beings, one is dominant to the other in that circumstance. In humans, it is going to be a factor of many things, from knowledge, to the specific circumstance, to temperament, and that temperament may be both innate and learned.
For example, in the example I gave in the blog, if one of the two players (both adults) were a doctor, then it is extremely likely that that person will be dominant under the circumstances. The assumption is that the doctor will take charge, based on their greater knowledge. But if the conversation shifts to finding a way to support the building, and the second person is a steelworker, then they will likely become the dominant party at that point. Do they take control or as a give it to them? I would say it’s both.
If a person tries to take control from another, and it is not freely given by the other, then we call them a bully. And while we might do what they want when we believe they can hurt us, that’s not leadership. So leadership only exists if the follower chooses to give control to the other. Which can be a very relaxing place to be!
And while I suspect there is both an innate and “circumstance-specific” quality to a tendency towards leading or a tendency towards following, I really don’t know that for sure. I often call this ” force of personality”. and if you think about it for a while, you can actually pull this apart into the behaviors that create that force; calm and measured speaking. A lower tone of voice. Low level of erratic movement. Direct eye contact, etc.
I will teach a webinar on this topic, in relation to dogs. If you are interested, keep an eye out for it later this year. From my point of view, the important thing is that this skill can be learned. The next thing is figuring out when to apply it vs when to give choice 🙂
Complex and fascinating topic.
I was a teacher. I like how you make a bridge from children to dogs. And how it helps explain to people abt leadership. I was just thinking abt how to explain teachers to others. Thanks for posting