This is an essay from my popular 100 Days of Leadership Series. If you would like to learn how to become a leader in your organization, your community, or in your personal life, sign up here to receive these short essays directly to your inbox.
When I tell people about my dog, Pearl, I almost always follow it up with, “adopting her was one of the best decisions of my life.” In truth, it was my girlfriend who had to drag me by the ear to convince me to bring her home in the first place. But looking back, the decision to get a dog has changed my life forever.
If you’ve gotten a dog, you know the feeling. You feel the joy, you observe your increased daily happiness, and you notice the decreased fears of picking up poop, among other benefits. Dogs just have a magical effect on an owner, especially if they’re well-behaved like Pearl. But there’s another powerful benefit of having a dog: they teach you a lot about how to lead people effectively.
My best (and current) definition of the goal of leadership is to move individuals as a cohesive unit towards a clear and unified purpose, all the while bringing out the best in each by training and mentoring them until they themselves are suited to be leaders.
In order to achieve this, it helps to rely on a set of practical principles that you can use to influence your team’s, your followers’, or your subordinates’ behavior in a way that empowers them and also brings the unit closer to the ultimate goal.
In doing a ton of research on how to train a dog correctly, I repeatedly came across three primary principles every dog owner should employ: shaping, positive reinforcement, and progressive difficulty. (Keep in mind, this is simply a hyper-useful heuristic for leading humans the right way, not an attempt to compare humans to dogs!) If you can lead dogs effectively, you can lead humans too.
Let’s say you want your dog to stop bothering you for scraps at the dinner table. If you reprimand them, they won’t know what for. They just know they want a yummy treat in their tummy. Expecting them to just stop is a big ask of a dog, so you’ll have to break the behavior down into (pardon the pun) digestible pieces. For example, 1) stand by the empty dinner table. Often this is their cue to come over. Treat them for not coming over. 2) Sit at the empty dinner table. Give a treat if they stay. 3) Turn and face the dinner table as if you are eating. Treat them if they stay. And so on. Shaping is an iterative process. It doesn’t work all in one shot. But over time, your dog will learn the benefits of staying, not the costs of intruding on your dinner.
Similarly, I grew up in a strict household with my grandparents. My grandfather was an Asian immigrant, and if any of you know Asian culture, you’ll know that they expect nothing but excellence. As a child, I learned a lot of lessons the hard way because grandpa had no concept of shaping. It was either do or be punished. Excellence was expected, which meant all the focus was on the negatives (more about that in the next section). If this dynamic shaped anything, it was my distaste for school. All the focus was on grades, and it took all the fun out of learning. I was fearful of the prospect of getting a B in any class. This helped me in K-12, but once I went to college, I fell off dramatically. When you hold someone to a lofty standard, the moment you let go of that, the more likely they are to fall away from it as well. But by training someone in incremental pieces, they’ll not only learn the full behavior through repetition, but they are more likely to continue it into the future.
All animals respond to incentives more than punishment. That includes dogs and humans. When you punish your dog for peeing in the house, A) they probably won’t learn, B) their obedience level will slowly decrease, C) they’ll hide from you and pee in the corner, and D) they’ll become scared of you. If you want your dog to stop peeing in the house, it’s best to reward them with a treat when they pee out on the grass. If you want your dog to love their crate, it’s best to give them a treat each time they enter it.
When leading humans, it’s clear that they respond to incentives much more effectively than fear. Fear works to an extent, but only manages to get the bare minimum out of people. You must reward people for doing the correct thing. Most will say “why should I reward people for doing their jobs?” And I say that not only will they do their jobs, but they’ll also do it better, and they’ll love you more for it. Not to mention, team culture and environment will dramatically improve. Positive reinforcement works both ways, however. If the leader’s behavior is reinforced by people obeying, the leader will continue the same behavior, which is why two-way accountability is so crucial, and will be discussed in a future article. Incentives might not be everything, but they influence everything. As Charlie Munger says, “show me the incentive, and I’ll show you the outcome.”
Dogs are known to have extraordinarily little self-control. If you put food in front of them, they’ll gobble it up before you have a chance to blink. Pearl, being a larger dog with larger needs, is a perfect example. As a great way to get her out of this feeding-frenzy habit, we’ve used the three D’s: distance, duration, distraction. Distance is how far away you can give them a command. Duration is how long they can hold the command before being rewarded. Distraction is how much stimuli they can ignore while focusing on you. By increasing these variables incrementally, you will be able to train them to do just about anything.
When I trained new servers at the restaurant I was in charge of, it was tempting to throw them into the fire and force them fend for themselves. That’s how I was trained, after all. But I realized that this was not the most effective way. Similar to shaping, by incrementally increasing the challenge through many iterations, it allowed good habits to stick. It took a lot of time and energy on the front end, but in the long run, it allowed me to manage other parts of the restaurant without having to worry and micromanage.
As you can see through my experiences, we already use these principles unconsciously. But channel the principles of shaping, positive reinforcement, and progressive difficulty into intentional leadership principles and you’ll not only have a well-trained dog, but you’ll be able to build a loyal following of people who are willing to go above and beyond for you to achieve the vision you set out for them.
If you want to be an effective leader, get a dog.
Become a Better Leader
The world is starved of principled leadership. I’m writing to help you step up and step into that void.
This free email series will cover every aspect of principled leadership, from personal to organizational leadership, to navigating the muddy waters of poor leadership.
Sign up for 100 Days of Leadership
Enter your email, and you’ll receive a series of hard-earned, time-tested, practical principles that will make you a better leader, or help you become a leader.