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Are Your Paws Sticky? Leadership Lessons from a Lab

by Jim Taggart August 10, 2011

We thought nothing of it.

Paint the deck since it was starting to peel.

Except something weird happened along the way.

Max, our five year old American Yellow Lab, loves to lie on the deck, watching people (and dogs) pass by down below on the walking path behind our house. Two days after painting the deck, which we though was dry, we let Max out for a much-needed R&R to check out the passersby.

He sauntered out on to the deck. Then we noticed a sticking sound as his paws stuck lightly to the deck. Oh, oh. Max was not pleased. “What the heck have you guys done to my favorite place?”

Sue and I were in deep doo-doo.

For the next two weeks there was nothing we could do to get Max on to the deck. We finally thought of his beloved liver treats. That initially seemed to did the trick, except that he was so hesitating, looking at us with suspicion. “What are you guys up to?” After eating his treat he high-tailed it back into the kitchen.

Sue and I were starting to get frustrated.

That was until Lily arrived for a visit. Lily’s our oldest granddaughter, nine years old. I explained to her our dilemma. That it was going to take time for Max to rebuild his trust and confidence to venture out on to the deck. She quickly got the message and started working with Max, gradually getting him to go on the deck and relax. Her little 2 ½ year-old sister, Ashley, also got into the act.

As Lily said to me one evening while she was stroking Max’s head to help relax him while lying on the deck, “I’m healing Max.” Indeed she was.

So what’s my point in sharing this story with you?

It’s all about leadership.

Think about work situations where management broke the trust. What took months – years – to build was destroyed in a matter of minutes. It may have been a reorg, downsizing, merger, change of policy. Whatever. It doesn’t matter the reason.

The point is that employees – PEOPLE – were hurt, or there was perceived hurt.

If you detach yourself for a moment from the human factor and its implications, there are big consequences for organizations, whether business or government. If you destroy the trust that people have established in you, their leader, only to dismantle it without engaging them in a two-way conversation, you’re in for a very long journey of reconstruction. Along the way, productivity will plummet, innovation will sink and client service will suck.

Sue and I, with Lily’s (and Ashley’s) help had to work consistently to regain Max’s trust over two weeks. That it was okay to venture out on to the deck, and that we weren’t trying to hurt or manipulate him. Lab’s are highly intelligent dogs, but they also remember and are stubborn. Sounds like a lot of people I know.

And yes, very recently Max walked nonchalantly out onto the deck one evening. Just like the good old days.

So if you’re in a leadership position and you’re frustrated why your people are not aligned behind you, step back for a moment. The first question to ask yourself is: “Do my people trust me.

The second one is: “Are their paws sticky?”

We are the only species that follows unstable pack leaders.

– Cesar Millan (The Dog Whisperer)