There’s a man who lives on a farm out west.., wa..aa..ay out west who talks to horses. They call it a ranch in those parts and these farms are as big as some countries, but that’s just me getting a little a green about the gills. It has nothing to do with our story for the day…
So anyway, this man, Monty Roberts, has garnered quite a following in those parts, amongst both horses and people, and they call him the ‘Horse Whisperer’… yeah, just like the movie. To cut an epic story short, basically our man Monty learnt about the secrets of equine communication by observing wild mustangs in Nevada. He then brought those secrets to his own ranch where he used the same principles to teach himself how to ‘speak’ to a horse and control it without having to resort to brutal traditional methods that break a horse’s spirit and seek to enslave it.
That was then. Many seminars, competitions and a couple of visits to the Buckingham palace later, Monty became a celebrated trainer, first of horses and then of people. Today, Monty teaches people how the same principles can help us communicate with greater effectiveness and compassion, with both horses and people.
Much later, on a TV screen, another whisperer, a dog trainer named Cesar Milan, took the template forward in a Nat Geo TV show of his own and became known as the Dog Whisperer. Hollywood royalty like Will Smith and his family would learn lessons in leadership from this man as they struggled to control their 110lb Rottweiler.
Incidentally, wolves (genetically almost the same as dogs) are the only mammals to have colonized nearly as much of the earth as man. And their complex pack culture of competition and cooperation mimics many aspects of our social structure. The relationship between wolf (now dog) and man, is unique. The relationship isn’t based on capture or coercion but on a voluntary association that has earned the once wild wolf the moniker of ‘man’s best friend’. As you can see, there is more than one reason to harvest what we can from this association, including lessons in pack leadership.
Great! Now that the stage is set, time for me to walk up to you and let you in on a secret of my own. While I have shared playtime with animals for as long as I can remember, I have been spending a lot of time lately training dogs for competitive canine sports like tracking, weight-pull and protection.
Admittedly, I’m still a season away from my first title shot and a long way from an invitation from the queen’s herald or a slot on Nat Geo. And yet, I can’t help but notice the parallels between training people (a role I’ve been engaged in for nearly two decades now) and training dogs. Training dogs for competition or protection usually means working with dogs with the strongest personality traits, or drives, in K9-speak. You need dogs that are physically sound and conditioned to operate at an optimal level of fitness. And more importantly, you need dogs with personalities that are supremely confident, tenacious and creative. Without strong leadership, they could become domineering, stubborn and destructive, even dangerous. Thus, the parallels between training a driven dog to serve mankind and training a highly talented and ambitious but cocky employee become obvious. Add the word fearless to both these individuals and you realize the tool used most often by people in power becomes an impotent barrel that fires blanks. You could of course hire employees that are blindly submissive, unquestioning of authority and incapable of taking decisions or direction on their own. That’s your typical house pet – good for companionship, but little else. Or you could hire the lovable rascal. The one who says all the right lines, is smart enough to know what you want and does what you want when your back isn’t turned but swipes the bacon off your plate when you aren’t looking. Scold him once and he rolls over and plays dead till you can’t help but laugh. That’s the opportunist – a bright dog that is without talent or drive but has a sharp survival instinct. Most stray dogs you take in are very similar. They don’t have the strong breeding that gives the bloodhound its nose or the greyhound its speed but generations of canine cunning of surviving the streets give them the skills they need to work the master(s) into parting with a portion of bread or a place in the porch. These dogs usually have more than one such home earmarked for their purposes and their PR skills with all such homes are excellent. As pets, you expect little from these two categories other than a little companionship and the odd whining bark while the burglars are counting out your silver… and that works fine for most. But pack them into the teams you work with and you will either be falling off a cliff carried on the backs of lemmings that only know one way to work or you will be left holding the door, getting drenched in the rain while the opportunists, like termites, have eaten you out of house and hearth. If you need a dog to rescue survivors in an earthquake when it’s many degrees below freezing, to sniff out bombs in a train in 98% humidity or chase down an armed terrorist 50 degrees in the shade, or just to fight without fear when two hustlers are trying to kidnap a family member, those are the times you need the alpha dog. And you need an alpha dog if you want to create a team of world beaters who will elevate visions, bottomlines, organizations and leaders into positions of greater impact, eminence and power.
But alpha dogs aren’t easy. They are confident, have enormous self belief. They question, they are creative, they are stubborn and they do not fall in line unless the leader has earned its love and trust. Now, trust would mean the alpha dog should have faith in your ability to understand its capabilities and limitations (talent management), see more than it does (vision) and must trust your sense of fairness (arbitration and profit sharing). The really challenging part of the equation is, how do we earn that trust, in a confident questioning child as a parent, in a talented and ambitious employee as a leader or in a driven dog as a trainer, given that the old tools of fear and temptation will either be useless, myopic or at worst would drive off the right kind and attract the wrong kind of reaction/people? Well, I’m still a work in progress but here are some quick takeaways from my days spent so far, making tongues and tails wag.
Lesson 1: Communicate effectively
Effective communication has three powerful pillars – and words, is not one of them. That is so because people don’t trust them, dogs don’t understand them and children often don’t know what to make of them. So what would they trust and understand?
a) Tone – the tone in which you express your commands/expectations/targets goes way further than words ever could. I’m not saying you need to shout when you say “no!!” Just keep it short and sharp instead of pleading like you would while saying please when your toddler is decorating your laptop with porridge or your dog is humping the neighbour’s leg or your sales manager wants to offer kickbacks for a government deal.
b) Actions – Monty Roberts gets a wild horse to stop running away, and then makes it walk up to him while he puts a saddle on its back for the first time, just with gestures and body positioning. The usual route would have taken a couple of people lots of shouting, bucket-loads of sweat, many knots on a rope and maybe a broken bone or two. Kinesics or body language is an incredibly powerful primal tool that is way older than the spoken language and cuts across gender, age, racial, cultural, language and even the species barrier. If you know the symbols that a community, individual or species identifies with, you could convey way more than words with just one action. More than the reams of print on the subject, it is the symbol of the teary eyed man with folded hands that conveyed the tragedy of the Gujarat riots. The silent poignant image of a lifeless little body washed up on the Turkish coast screamed the loudest about the plight of refugees fleeing the Levant.
In Europe in the 1940s , an arm extended straight from the shoulder and parallel to the ground is all it took to convey ‘nationalism’, racism, and allegiance to a madman and a war that threatened to overrun the world.
As for alpha dogs in the kennels, the boardroom, the playroom or the hustings, square shoulders, an elevated position, a deeper voice, the ability to make eye contact and stand ground, even when under fire, and hands that speak along with a voice that can touch, go a long way in projecting a clear sense of purpose and a willingness to see things through till the end, thus emphasizing the qualities of a leader.
c) Consistent communication – this is the field of Waterloo where sometimes even the ablest falter. Parents, CEOs and trainers of humans and canines alike often follow tenets without personal conviction. And such leaders will, sooner than later, fail to walk the talk. And an intelligent child, employee or canine partner will catch that inconsistency in a flash and find a way to use it to their advantage.
If you give in to a child throwing a tantrum or a dog being obstinate, you’ve conditioned them to believe that if they keep at it long enough, you will give in eventually. They have virtually begun to lead you.
With employees, inconsistent leadership will either turn away the bright ones who will lose respect for you or turn them into opportunists who will stop taking you seriously and start working you to suit their ends.
Lesson 2: Looks don’t count
With dogs you really begin to understand why we shouldn’t take people on face value. A 30 kg Malinois is a far better guard dog than a 110 kg Saint Bernard. And while a sable German Shepherd might look a lot like a wolf, it can’t hunt, while the tiny Bedlington terrier that looks like a lamb is actually a fierce hunter.
It is here that you can see nature’s trick and realize that it isn’t the gifts that you can see – the pleasing personality, the charming manners and the winning smile that makes a guy great at sales. It is the guy who begins with the end in mind and moulds his behaviour and plans with the sale in mind who effects the sale, no matter how awkward his smile. It is only and only about the way an individual thinks and plans, both about work and the self that makes him good at what he does. And as a leader, one needs to identify and then harness that self image, and feed those mental cravings that define the individual if one is to optimize their potential, be it a child, a dog or an employee.