Top Down and Bottom Up Leadership
There’s an old saying in New England (and many other parts of the country and the world) that if you don’t like the weather, just wait a minute. In some ways, the same is true of behavior. If the behavior of another doesn’t appeal to us, chances are it will change shortly. Equally interesting is that if one sticks around long enough, chances are that what experts once touted will fall from grace and what they disparaged will gain a following.
I was thinking about this one morning last month after I came across an excerpt from Anna Quinlan's latest book, Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake. She referred to life in general, but it struck me that her observations apply to the training/behavioral and medical/healthcare worlds as well.
Quinlan points out that when we were little kids we constantly asked "Why?" as anyone who has spent time around young kids well knows. And as young kids we do this because so much is new to us and we really do want to know why things are the way they are. If nothing else, we want and need to know this to understand where we belong and how we fit in. But as we get older that “Why?” takes on a different meaning. Instead of serving as a way to understand the world around us, we use it to test limits that we find constraining for some reason. The petulant 16-year-old relentlessly asks why she can’t drive herself to parties and come home when she wants instead of her mom or dad playing chauffer.
Later in life though, such whys become less egocentric and involve larger issues. At the same time though, some people who consider the why question normal behavior in youngsters may consider adults asking the same as boat-rockers or not being team players. Particularly if one turns an introspective eye on one’s own field of interest. But the whys associated with adulthood often occur when we discover, as Quinlan puts it so well, "…that conventional wisdom is often simply inertia with a candy coating of conformity."
Even though we seldom may think about it, one of the consequences of success within a particular system and regardless of one's age is that it makes it much more difficult to move beyond the inertia that success creates. When we can convince ourselves that agreement with others within our group and/or our incomes justify the approach, there's no reason to ask "Why are we doing this?"
Take the concept of leadership, for example. For many in our society, leadership refers to a top down phenomenon. Those who possess a sufficient amount of wealth, education—formal or street smarts—or influence rank as leaders. Some even believe that certain people are born with this quality, i.e., it’s in their genes. (Shades of eugenics, but that’s another story!) When presented with such a person, those with less impressive credentials defer, presumably because they’re awed by the other’s superiority. Or so this kind of thinking goes.
Of course we need only to look at the political situation worldwide to realize that, when such a definition of leadership exists, not everyone may share it. When this occurs, some leaders may attempt to woo those failing to recognize their leadership with rewards while others may resort to punishments of some sort.
However new research on leadership suggests that, instead of leadership being something someone at the top imposes on those perceived as lesser in some way, it’s a position that those in the lower ranks grant to the leader. And the reason they grant it is because they believe the leader earned it. They believe that the leader understands their situation and how to resolve the problems facing them.
These conclusions made sense to me because this is the way it works in the animal kingdom. In that realm, I suspect that of the multiple qualities that would earn an animal long-term leadership status two would be especially important: the ability to get the big picture quickly and behavioral elasticity. Both are necessary because day to day life varies for animals as well as humans. Leadership strategies that benefit the group and earn others’ respect in one situation may not in another.
For example, suppose the group is competing for a limited resource against those who are much weaker. In this situation, a straightforward more assertive and aggressive leadership approach may be worth the effort because any damage suffered by the leader and the group will be minimal.
On the other hand, suppose the two groups are more evenly matched. In this case, a leader capable of switching to a more subtle low-keyed strategy will have the advantage. This occurs because the more equal the opposition, the more time and energy required to overcome it by force, and the greater risk of injury to all. And this includes risk to the very resources the group hoped to claim which may be damaged or even destroyed in such a process.
Human and nonhuman animal leaders who make the response that works for them personally instead of for the group won’t remain leaders very long. True, they may continue to call themselves leaders and even do so for a long time. But they’ll be leaders in name only because they lack the support that followers confer on those they truly trust to lead.
In addition to knowing when to use high or low-energy leadership strategies to benefit the group, good leaders also know when to get out of the way and let the followers find their own way. And in some ways, possessing the behavioral elasticity to know when to do this requires the greatest leadership skill of all.
But what does all of this have to do with companion animals? Considering all the different aspects of quality leadership has become a way for me to deal with the deluge of "Whys?" that inundate me as more and more young animals, and particularly puppies and young dogs, from traumatic backgrounds make their way into the companion animal population. For this we can thank the increase in interstate or international shipment of animals, sometimes via an unregulated process that would cause those often denounced puppy mills to lose their licenses faster than you can say twice-baked kibble.
Then and now the candy-coated conventional wisdom proclaimed this a win-win situation: animals needing homes were shipped wherever there were people who wanted to add a puppy to their households. This, even though it’s safe to say that most of these animals did not experience anything remotely similar to a quality relationship with an adult animal with good parental skills in a stable environment for the first 8-12 weeks of their lives.
As best I can tell, this process represented a view of human leadership by virtue of our bigger brain, opposable thumb, and ability to walk upright on two legs. We didn’t need to earn it; we didn’t need to prove that we were worthy of it. We did it because we could. And now those who adopt some of these animals are faced with the difficult task of earning legitimate leadership status against that backdrop and the behavioral fallout thereof.
Whatever else we may say about the lives of these fur-covered emigrants and immigrants, in no way can we say that they lacked stimulation. If anything, they were grossly over stimulated, thanks to two circumstances. First they were exposed to a raft of novel and sometimes frightening stimuli, most of it alien to the average stable household, and over which these animals had no control. And second, they were deprived of the consistent and calming leadership of a mature animal who could comfort them and teach them to discriminate between those stimuli that posed a threat and that which do not.
That same candy-coated conventional wisdom also maintained that these animals arrive as blank slates and that a dedicated program of socialization will provide them with all the early lessons they missed. However, these animate transplants have experienced more in their brief lives than many dogs raised in stable, supportive environments will experience in a lifetime. Additionally the socialization recommendation assumes that we humans with our limited perception possess the capacity to replace a mature adult animal with good parental skills when it comes to helping these over-stimulated animals sort through all the past stimuli they experienced as well as that which they experience once in their new homes. In our dreams!
Although some pups do manage to adjust just as some kids adjust to social and educational systems that they must overcome in order to learn, others do not. And in my experience, these animals fall into two general groups: those who over-react and those who shut down completely when stimulus overload occurs. And those animals in these groups who succeed belong to folks with the three qualities previously mentioned. Those people know when to act assertively and when to set these animals up to make the correct response so subtly the dog thinks it was her own idea. And after they earn the animal’s trust and respect as a reliable reference point via their consistent responses, they know when to get out of the way.
Many times over the years I’ve noted that I’ve been blessed with the best collection of patients and clients that anyone could hope for. For the past several months I’ve been working with one such person who adopted a transport pup who fell into the overly reactive/easily frightened category who required the patience and consistency of a saint as well as someone with the full range of true leadership/canine parental skills. Fortunately, he was adopted by someone who had or was willing to develop these for the benefit of her dog.
The dog is very intelligent with strong working dog breeding. As such, he arrived with a full complement of experiences, the nature of which we will never know. Then he was plunged into the social scene until he reached his stimulus threshold. At that point, he crashed. Since then he has blossomed, thanks to his owner’s willingness to supply him with a reliable physical, mental, and emotional framework. But in addition to that, she is so aware of the big picture and the view from his perspective, that she also knows when to stay out of it and let him figure things out himself. She knows when to follow his lead.
In the candy-coated conventional wisdom of leadership, the idea of a human choosing to follow a dog’s lead is anathema, a sin of calamitous magnitude.
But when we see the big picture, when we move beyond the inertia generated by the candy-coated conventional wisdom, the only logical response to such an accusation is, "Why?"
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