Because we drive and wear clothes, people generally pretend that we’re no longer animals and yet our instincts all come from the same origins. After food and shelter, the comfort of our pack is our primary concern. We are able to survive without the pack, but not in a healthy way. We are designed to function as a group, so any extended separation or estrangement will generally debilitate us.
Modern packs come in many forms. There is the family, there are classrooms or cliques of students in school, there are our sports or activity friendships, our social circle, and of course there is the dog-team of the workplace. Some—like our activity or social friendships—are voluntary. We decide who we want in and who we want out. Others, like family or work, are not under our control and we must adapt to our imposed pack-mates.
In each of these situations a natural or imposed hierarchy will exist. Maybe it’s the Mom or Dad at the top of the family, with the kids being ordered variously by age, strength, intelligence, and confidence. Or maybe it’s with friends, where the order is determined more like a pack of wild animals—where the choice for leader is an unconscious consensus between the people who naturally step forward to lead, and those who would prefer not to have that responsibility themselves. But in every other realm of life the leader is imposed. This is challenging, because if that assigned leader does not naturally gain the Confidence of the pack, then that pack will become dysfunctional both socially and in terms of its ability to successfully hunt.
Where this often becomes the most challenging is situations where the leader is new. The new manager will begin by giving their staff the sort of management they wished for or admired while they were still an underling. But that only helps people with personalities very similar to the manager’s. Better leaders will realise that each pack member is unique and that what works on one won’t work on another. If the leader fails to have this realisation, then they will attempt to run everyone like they’re one person and they will vainly attempt to maximise everyone’s strengths but in every single pack member.
Human packs in business will have greyhounds that can sprint and huskies that can carry heavy loads for long distances. They will have wiener dogs that can dig well and that are designed to hunt in very confined spaces, and they have hounds that can follow a scent for days. The weakest leaders will fail to notice these differences and they will often angrily demand that each dog have every strength.
You cannot ask the short-legged dachshund to have the advantages of the long distance husky, and then on top of that you want the husky to go down a tiny hole in the ground where it doesn’t even fit. It’s also unwise to want the greyhound to still run like the wind, but still follow a scent. That isn’t the dog failing, that’s the manager failing and with each admonishment the pack will get weaker because the animals will feel like they’re failing when in fact they are simply being lead in the wrong direction.
Yelling at or harshly criticising an animal will not increase its performance, it will decrease it. An animal does not run toward things that look dangerous or unpleasant. An unhealthy pack will fearfully fumble along with only half of its attention on hunting because the other half will be focused on trying to keep themselves safe from being attacked by their own pack-leader.
People don’t leave meetings where they just got yelled at and say to each other, “Yeah, we’re really dumb and lazy and awful—let’s do better!” No, they head straight to the water cooler to waste time discussing how poor a leader they have.
Life and school and business will have natural ups and downs. There is nothing in this world that isn’t like that, so if a leader is disappointed by anything other than significant success then they are living in a fantasy world and they are only a leader in name. True leadership knows that off-days are inevitable and they know to show up with love and support when things are bad. That is when that support is most useful. But if the hunting was bad and all the dogs are tired and starving, biting them to run faster will only serve to make tomorrow’s hunt even worse.
The best leaders are loved and trusted for their consistency. Both good news and bad news is met with the same quiet confidence. And a good plan doesn’t change based on short-term results, because even the best plans don’t guarantee perfect performance. If the pack is getting attacked any time things aren’t perfect then it will almost always be under some form of attack, and it will under-perform simply because too much of its energy is wasted on disappointment and fear.
If you’re seeking success and you think punishing people is an effective means of getting them to do things differently then you simply do not understand how people (or animals) work. If a dog gets beaten every time it can’t live up to the achievements of a completely different kind of dog on a different kind of day, then that will be one nervous and ineffective pup because too much of its attention will be focused on not getting beaten.
If that same dog gets rewarded for its unique skills and good behaviours, those will expand. The dog will literally ask for opportunities to succeed. So yes, a wiener dog will struggle with running long distances. But at the same time, it will feel entirely comfortable crawling down dark holes. So each member of the pack must be approached as an individual and managed according to their strengths, not their weaknesses. Because no amount of barking or biting will turn a chihuahua into a pit bull.
If you’re in a position of leadership, stop telling your pack how to be successful and start asking them how you can support them in being successful, because the leader isn’t supposed to turn the dogs into each other. The good leader figures out what each dog’s strength is, and then it applies those strengths appropriately.
If your staff or your children see you approaching and their response is fear, then you are failing at maximising their potential. However, if they see you approaching and they feel secure and cared-for, then you will be maximising their potential and you will have 100% of it available for the hunt. And that is the good leader’s best bet for keeping his both himself and his pack happy.
Scott McPherson is an Edmonton-based writer, public speaker, and mindfulness facilitator who works with individuals, companies and non-profit organisations locally and around the world.