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Leadership Doesn’t Have to be Like Herding Cats: What We Can Learn from Dogs

January 27, 2013

Max  - Erica Aug 2012 I’m a dog lover. If you’ve been following my posts you’ll have read about Max, my 85 pound Yellow Labrador Retriever.

Dogs are fascinating to watch when in a group. They instinctively stay together, playing and romping around, exploring new scents– sometimes gross stuff. And they quickly figure out the hierarchy within the pack. One dog typically emerges as the leader.

Boundaries are established by the pack: what’s acceptable behavior and what’s not.

Max runs three days a week out at a farm 15 minutes from our suburban home. He gets picked up by Erica, who runs an excellent dog-walking service, except at her farm the dogs run loose–and hard. They socialize and explore together.

Max loves the ladies, especially chocolate Labs. And he’s been known to get a little too amorous, but not in a physical way. The females quickly set him straight and send him on his way. When another dog tries to provoke Max by getting in his face he’ll turn and walk away if he senses that there’s something else going on with the dog. His attitude is like, “Get a life, buster!”

Max-Charley-Ferg But what makes dogs so cool as creatures is their innate desire to be together and to quickly sort out the rules by which they interact. Dogs lead, and they want to be lead.

Cats are a different ball of wax.

And humans can be almost as frustrating.

I’ve done a great deal of volunteer community work over 30 years. It’s been mostly rewarding. However, there have been times that I wondered why I was involved with a group of people who seemed to want to grandstand and engage in petty squabbling. They lost sight of the larger purpose of their mission and why they volunteered in the first place.

Recently, I formed a community action group to address the development of the private land across from where I live. We came together very quickly because of the pressing deadline with the City of Ottawa’s zoning process. I was leery about getting into an area of which I knew little, not to mention actually chairing a committee that would negotiate with the private developer, city hall and our municipal councilor.

It’s turning out to be a valuable learning experience with a relatively positive outcome, or at least to this point.

Rather than adopt a critical, hostile stance, our group has taken a constructive dialogue with the parties involved. You get more flies with honey. However, we also made it clear that we would fight if it became necessary.

It wasn’t easy when I first formed the group. Some individuals were angry with past experiences they’d had with the developer and city hall. They wanted to kick some butt. I recall when I asked my municipal councilor’s office to set up a meeting with the developer. The reply was sure, but that the developer’s director of land development would only speak to us if we were polite (she’d had some very negative experiences with other community groups).

I assured the councilor’s office that our group was composed of polite people, and that as chair I don’t tolerate rude people. After several meetings, which included a hotel developer from Toronto, the feedback has been that our group is polite, constructive and well-intentioned in its mission. And we’re achieving results of which we’re pleased.

One lesson I’ll share with you is that regardless of your context (work or community), if you’re forming a working group, project team or community action committee, be very clear from the start on the behaviors you expect and have everyone embrace them. If you model them personally, you’ll be amazed at how others will fall into line behind you. Eject disrespectful shit disturbers from your group or committee. They have no place on it.

Leadership does not have to be about herding cats. Take a lesson from Max and his pals.


The factory of the future will have only two employees, a man and a dog. The man will be there to feed the dog. The dog will be there to keep the man from touching the equipment.

Warren Bennis


Photos by Erica MacTaggart (Ferghus and Company)


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2 Comments leave one →
  1. January 28, 2013 3:59 pm

    Thanks Lynne. This community work on the land development is a long-term project so we’ll see where it goes.

  2. January 28, 2013 1:46 pm

    It’s great to hear that your group is working out so well and that their approach is appreciated. And a great job of leadership on your part!

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