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Hackernoon logoLeadership Lessons from a Dog in Uncertain Times by@e.p.m.vermeulen

Leadership Lessons from a Dog in Uncertain Times

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@e.p.m.vermeulenErik P.M. Vermeulen

Business & finance professor, digital lawyer, restaurant owner, board member & traveler.

“Why does watching a dog be a dog fill one with happiness?” — Jonathan Safran Foer

In times of uncertainty, watching videos about dogs on social media can be relaxing. It helps take your mind off the current crisis. At least for a short time.

Yes, the content can be silly and childish. But I like it. I must have watched 500 dog videos over the last couple of weeks.

However, there is one sub-genre that I find particularly annoying. The videos in which dogs are dressed as human beings. I don’t know why, but they really irritate me.

We should not force dogs into behaving like human beings. There is much we can learn from dogs if we just let them be dogs. And here I don’t refer to the ability to enjoy the present moment and be genuinely happy. No, I am talking about their “leadership skills” in times of crisis. So, let me share my experience of how our dog has become an effective leader in a work-from-home environment.

A Dog’s Life

Dogs and humans have always been a perfect match. Humans living together with dogs goes back for thousands of years. Dogs complete us. They can assist with hunting. They help farmers with herding and guarding livestock. Our property is safer when they are around to provide protection. And they can offer the necessary assistance to people in need.

Over time our relationship with dogs evolved and deepened. Dogs have become a man and a woman’s “best friend.” Companionship. Loyalty. Honesty. Unconditional Love.

Let’s be honest. Most of us find it extremely difficult to hold back our tears when something happens to a “Hollywood” dog. Marley and Me, starring a Labrador retriever, made it into the “twenty films that make men cry” list in 2010. And I still get upset about Robert Neville (Will Smith) being forced to kill his own dog (Samantha) in the action thriller I Am Legend.

I also find the scenes with dogs the most enjoyable parts of the many reality shows that are being aired on TV. Even though I am not a big fan of reality TV, I have a deep respect for the fantastic work of the K-9s in Live PD and all the dogs in the border-security shows. I even saw an article that scientists in the UK are investigating whether dogs might be trained to recognize coronavirus.

When I am with our dog, I feel comfortable. At ease. Let’s call it a Zen moment. She helps me put things in perspective, to worry less about the past and the future, and enjoy the simple beauty of life.

When I come home from work, the dog is already waiting for me in front of the window. Her enthusiastic greetings give me a burst of energy. And walking her is never an inconvenience. Sun, snow or rain. Going out with her is always fun.

Our dog is a female Weimaraner named Toba. We named her after a Japanese city. We visited the town during our honeymoon. We picked her up when she was still a puppy in December 2009. I will never forget how my wife and I spend our Christmas time toilet training our new puppy. Also, we were swamped, making sure that our furniture would survive the arrival of our new family member.

I loved Toba but believed that the days of “working from home” and being productive were over. She was extremely distractive. You couldn’t ignore her. No way. She wanted to be the center of attention.

My wife had high hopes of going to obedience school with her. I only joined them a few times. I couldn’t watch it anymore. Let’s say that we had mixed results. Eventually, we concluded that it was better to let our dog be a dog.

And here we are, more than ten years later. Our dog has become an indispensable part of our family.

Recently, lots has changed in a very short amount of time. Will the world ever be the same? I am now in my third week of working-from-home. One thing hasn’t changed though, our dog still behaves like a puppy. She is so much more than our best friend. And, surprisingly, she doesn’t keep me from work. The opposite, she makes sure that I am as productive as possible during these difficult times.

Our Dog & Leadership

But, most of all, I admire and appreciate Toba’s leadership skills. She has quickly developed into the leader you need in uncertain times.

Coordinator. When working from home, it is difficult to manage time. But our dog helps bring structure in our days. She forces us to have a schedule. Wake up early. Get dressed. Stand up (don’t sit the whole day) and take regular breaks. Our dog lets me work for several hours but understands that a structured way of working improves my focus and productivity. She understands that a workday is all about maintaining balance.

Inspirator. Our dog is also inspiring. She keeps my spirits up and helps me develop a workout routine. She has a built-in alarm that helps you do your exercise and go out for a run or walk. But there is so much more than that. She knows that playing with her keeps you fresh and creative. Her inquisitive and curious mind encourages you to also be creative yourself. Her optimism and enthusiasm remind me that there is always a solution to a problem.

Communicator. She is an excellent communicator and doesn’t need a lot of words. You know precisely what is expected from you (just by looking at her). And here I am not only talking about her own needs and desires (eat, sleep, walk, play, repeat). She is also a fantastic listener. When you are frustrated (after a long and tedious telephone conference or video call), you can just let your frustrations go. She will listen. I even have the feeling that she has a pretty good sense of what’s going on. She shows genuine emotion and offers a “shoulder” to cry on.

Distractor. And then she is a distractor. I know this sounds bad but is actually a great and necessary “leadership” skill in stressful times. After three weeks, some people start to feel isolated. There are also several moments during a day that there is simply a lack of motivation. When you are again notified by some devastating and terrible news, your work simply doesn’t make any sense. All of a sudden what you are doing isn’t that important. Our dog then immediately steps in and puts things in perspective, reduces stress, and gives me the energy to continue.

Comedian. A good leader understands that it is crucial to take the pressure off in times of crisis. Well, when we need a good laugh, our dog is there for us. She is simply a lot of fun — also when you work from home. Whenever I have a telephone conference or video conference, she is there by your side. And she is usually not silent.

It might sound weird, but, particularly, when specific difficult comments are made during the many virtual meetings, she starts barking, making the discussion more lighthearted.

Dogs & the Future of Work

The way we work has rapidly changed over the last decade. Traditional “offices” disappeared and were replaced by open office spaces. Now working remotely and working from home are becoming the new normal (and this will not disappear immediately in the post-coronavirus world).

The role of dogs is also evolving. We will see more dogs in the future of work. Before the crisis, there were already examples of dogs becoming more critical in the workspace. I remember a venture capital firm that had a dog as a “chief happiness officer.” Also, “bring your dog to work day” has been quite successful within my company. What is ironic is that in the digitizing world of remote work, most people don’t want to stay at home when dogs are in the office.

And I am convinced that dogs don’t only offer benefits to the employees. They are also a source of inspiration for business leaders and managers who have to make sure that companies remain relevant in the near to long-term future.

Think about it. In times of crisis, we need authentic leaders. Traditional wartime leaders, “control-freaks,” and micromanagers don’t solve the problems we are facing today. We don’t need leaders who issue specific orders and don’t offer their workers a significant degree of autonomy in finding the optimal solution. We need a different kind of leader. Future leadership is about stimulating entrepreneurship, innovation, and creativity. It is not about “command and control.”

Over the last three weeks, our dog showed me the benefits of a “context-driven” approach to leadership. Future leadership is about being open, transparent, and honest. It is about stimulating entrepreneurship, innovation, and creativity. It is about building a work environment that continuously puts things in perspective, gives you energy, and helps you overcome the most challenging problems.

There is so much to learn from our four-legged friends.

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@e.p.m.vermeulenErik P.M. Vermeulen

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Business & finance professor, digital lawyer, restaurant owner, board member & traveler.

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