Executive Perspective

Life’s Lessons From My Dog Holly

by PAUL D. HOUSTON

Shortly after my mother passed away last summer I realized my life had truly changed. She left me her dog. Now giving me a dog is cruel and unusual punishment--for the dog. Let’s just say my lifestyle and travel schedule doesn’t easily accommodate an ongoing responsibility. But you know what? It’s been a great learning experience for me. And from it I have developed some lessons for leaders.

Lesson No. 1: Every walk is a new walk.
I take Holly for a walk twice a day near my home. Because I live in an urban area I have to take her pretty much the same route each time to maximize the available grass. What I find fascinating is that she acts like she has never walked that way before. Every sight and smell is brand new and endlessly intriguing to her.

As leaders we can sometimes become bored with our activities and come to think we have seen it all before. The truth is, we haven’t. There is a teaching from Zen that you can never step in the same river twice. The world is constantly changing and if you don’t accept that, you will miss the nuances of change. You have to be open to new sights and smells, even on a familiar path.

A corollary to this is the teaching from Tom Peters and Robert Waterman that you need to manage by walking around. But while you’re walking, be careful where you step. Keep your eyes open and your nose ready--which leads to the next lesson.

Sensory Skills
Lesson No. 2 You have to smell around to enjoy things.
I can’t get over how much that dog likes to sniff around. No good smell goes undetected. Now personally, I wouldn’t want to smell some of the stuff she smells, but it seems irresistible to her. Most of the time I just walk past things. Holly digs down and really examines them at a very sensory level. How many leaders really get to know their environments the way a dog does? Few I would suspect.

Lesson No. 3: Dogs are always glad to see you.
It doesn’t much matter what is going on, when I come home Holly races to the door to say hello and to inquire about her walk. I might have had a bad day, been overcome with controversy and conflict or whatever, but there is Holly just glad to see me. We read a lot about unconditional love, but we don’t see a lot of it. Yet the task of leaders is to give their people the kind of loyalty and concern that a dog shows everyday. One of our politicians once observed that if you want someone in Washington to like you, get a dog. He was right.

Lesson No. 4: Dogs don’t wear watches.
When I take Holly for her walks I am usually in a hurry--running late, needing to get to my next task or whatever. She could care less. It just doesn’t matter to her. I realized that is because she doesn’t wear a watch. She doesn’t know what time it is. Dogs are in the moment. They don’t care what happened yesterday. They aren’t worrying about tomorrow. They are focused on the now. So should we be.

Lesson No. 5: Dogs eat a little, sleep a little and enjoy themselves.
We hear a lot about the need for balance in our lives. I have written about it. (I write better than I act on this topic!) Most of us know more about this than we do. Dogs don’t know that much--they just do it. They eat when they get hungry, sleep when they get tired and play with their toys when they need entertainment.

Lesson No. 6: Dogs wag their tail to show their intentions.
When my dog approaches another dog, she wags her tail to show she is friendly. I sometimes think it is unfortunate we don’t have a tail to wag to show our friendly intentions. We do bare our teeth at each other, but most of the time we could avoid problems by being friendlier to each other.

Lesson No. 7: Dogs don’t clean up their messes.
I also have learned some negative lessons from Holly. First of all, dogs don’t clean up after themselves--I have to do that. Leaders not only have to clean up their own messes, they have to clean up other people’s messes. While dogs are dependent, leaders must take responsibility for their lives and for those around them.

Clarifying Needs
Lesson No. 8: Dogs can’t communicate as clearly as humans.
Despite the fact that Holly is pretty smart and does a lot of interesting things, I have realized that she has yet to really tell me what she needs or even what she is thinking about. She gives me clues through looks and barks, but I find her lack of clarity extremely frustrating. It would be so much better if instead of pulling back on the leash, she would just say, “Hey, interesting smell here, wait up.” I am left trying to interpret her silence. Leaders must be sure they’re communicating effectively to maximize results.

Lesson No. 9: Dogs can’t tell the difference between a street and a sidewalk.
In Holly’s case the difference amounts to going after a big dog or being fearful of a small one. The fact is leadership can be dangerous and risky. It is good to know what to fear and where safety lies. And sometimes it is just good to curl up in a warm spot and chew on something.

(Author’s epilogue: A few weeks after writing this, Holly got very ill and passed away. It took me back to the thought on unconditional love. When you receive it, enjoy it while it lasts. And it wouldn’t hurt to give it to others.)

Paul Houston is AASA executive director.
E-mail: phouston@aasa.org