Leadership Learning from a Canine

Author name
Stephanie Helms-Pickett, Director, Duke Women’s Center

Thumbnail When asked to submit reflections on leadership, I immediately desired to have the reflection correlate with the topical focus of ethos and leadership. That after all is what I would spend time and energy speaking on at Framework Friday (April 11th 3pm UCAE…shameless plug).  However, I was reflecting upon the idea while walking Diamond, our family dog.  Our life at home revolves around her anyway, so it was not surprising that she became my immediate focus regarding leadership.  Here’s what she taught me…

In the evening when I arrive home from work and put my purse and laptop bag down, I open one of our kitchen drawers. Immediately when Diamond hears that sound, she excitedly runs downstairs. In leadership, we must answer the call to lead! Perhaps there is an issue that is buzzing in the ethos, and it requires attention.  Or perhaps, there is an issue that is so challenging, that people feel powerless or silenced to address.  Whichever the case, leaders should be curious enough to see a need and begin, with excitement to maneuver with readiness.

After I secure Diamond’s leash out of the drawer and attach it to her collar, she runs to the door, jumping high and wagging her tail to go outside and begin her walk.  As leaders, we must be enthusiastic about our journey.  When Diamond goes outside, she surveys our front yard, and looks in both directions of our street.  She notices everything before leaving our area.  Leaders must be acutely aware of their immediate resources.  Even though Diamond repeats this behavior daily, and is so keenly connected to her foundation, she never fails to notice any changes that may have emerged since her last outing.  As leaders, we cannot become so entrenched that we fail to look for newness in those who have elected to support us in our leadership.  We must take time to survey our landscape and appreciate the gifts of those around us before we elect to start on our destined path.

Once Diamond has completed her inventory, she sets out on her walk.  She typically walks ahead of me, but she is constantly stopping and looking back to see if I’m following.  Dr. Johnetta B. Cole once said, “If you are a leader, and no one is following you, you are just taking a long walk.”  As leaders, we must ensure that we have enlisted support and that what we are leading actually matters.  Of course, there are times when one must stand alone, but those are fewer and more far apart.  On the average, what you elect to provide leadership for should emerge from a space that others share a similar passion and are placing trust and faith in you to stay the course.

Even though we typically walk the same path, day after day, Diamond never ceases to loose focus of the end point (which happens to be our mailbox).  She is determined to get there, despite the wind, rain and as we experienced this season, the snow and ice.  The ethos around us may change regularly, as well as people’s opinions, but when we are focused with our predetermined end goal, the elements won’t matter.  We are instead as leaders, committed to the greater goal.

As we return home, Diamond always stops and speaks to someone along the way.  As leaders, we must never forget to take time along the journey for interacting with others.  We don’t have all the answers.  Sometimes a brief exchange may provide just what we need to support our work.  These brief moments may awaken the desire to lead in another.  Small beginnings are critical!

When we reach home, Diamond looks for water and finds a place to rest.  Restoration and self-care is critically important and essential as leaders.  Without it, we will not be well for self, those we are leading or for the work we’re expected to do.

As leaders, we must allow ourselves to be vulnerable enough to learn and to grow.  Only then will we create a path for success and sustainability.  As much as I believe I know about leadership, I’m still learning more everyday.  Yes, in fact you can teach an old dog new tricks!