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What I’ve (re) learned about leadership from Gracie

By Chris Hitch — February 10, 2011 2 min read
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This past December, my wife and I rescued Gracie, a 2 year old dog who came to us via a rescue shelter. Gracie was extremely traumatized-she had been hit by a car, fractured one pelvis and had severe hip dislocation, requiring significant surgery. For the past 8 weeks, we’ve been working with her to try to help her become a part of our family. As I’ve tried to work with her, she has given me a number of gifts, not the least of which is a chance to remind me of two timeless lessons of change leadership.

Before anybody dings me on any perceived demeaning parallels between pets and leading people-I fully understand and agree with that premise. I would never imply or state that leading people and teams of professionals is in any way parallel to training a pet. Neither am I implying that I have the wealth of writing expertise of James Herriot, the beloved author and veterinarian, who wrote All Creatures Great and Small. I have found, however, that wisdom and lessons can come from a WIDE universe of experiences, sometimes from the most unlikely places.

Lesson 1-What I consider normal activities, Gracie thinks is threatening and reacts accordingly. There are many normal daily activities that happen in the course of a 24 hour cycle that I consider normal. Activities such as taking off my shoes, reading a magazine or book at night, leaning over to scratch our other pet’s ears, or looking in the cupboard for my coffee cup to make a cup of coffee. Unfortunately, in the 8 weeks Gracie has been with us, she interprets these seemingly normal activities as extremely threatening and reacts accordingly. She runs, hides, cowers, and looks for any shelter she can find to get away from what she perceives as threatening. The leadership lesson is the variation on the idea of “when the leader sneezes, the entire organization catches the flu.” When we lead, we need to pay attention to the culture and background of the organization, especially when we are in our first 6 months into a new role. Remembering the accumulated actions, behaviors, and culture of your team, which has been imprinted on your organization’s DNA, is critical when you are leading your team.

Lesson 2-Be especially aware of organizational history. We’re trying to get Gracie to learn to take walks, now that her hip and pelvis has healed. When we walk on the sidewalk, Gracie doesn’t understand the leash and dashes away when she hears a car. It’s obviously justified since she associates cars with extreme pain and suffering. My wife and I spend a great deal of time reassuring her each time we put her on her leash and walk her when there is much less car traffic around the neighborhood. Similarly, we have to remind ourselves of the organizational history, especially when introducing change into the organization.

I’m proud to report that Gracie is doing great-although she DOES have the upper hand, choosing how or whether to respond to my requests. I guess that’s another lesson of leadership-remember your humility.

All the best,

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