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A Bone of Contention with Leadership Vacuums: Lessons from the Dog Whisperer

“They haven’t had a leader for the last two years,” my client explained. As a new manager assigned to work with this formerly “leaderless” team, she described how various tensions and interpersonal conflicts had flared up.
Over time, this “leaderless” group had redefined key work conditions and expectations by devising their own system of flexible work schedules, prolonging service delivery times without agreement from their clients, and collectively demanding the physical relocation of a member of the group that the majority found to be “too loud.”
But, within the first few months of my client taking on supervision of this team, she became the subject of two hostile work environment complaints brought forward by two of her employees.
I’ll cut to the chase – the complaints were bogus. They were motivated by the employees’ distaste and distrust of their new leader, and they bristled at what they referred to as the supervisor’s micromanagement.
Rather than micromanaging, I observed that the manager was reestablishing clear criteria around scheduling, service, professionalism and teamwork. In short, she was doing everything right. The one mistake the manager made, though, was in her assessment that this team had had no leader before she was assigned to the group. Au contraire.
Lack of leadership?
On the contrary, this group was certainly not lacking for leadership. Instead, it was clear that multiple quasi-leaders had developed over time. This led to problems because some of the people that stepped up didn’t really want to lead but couldn’t stand not having a leader; others were more self-serving. It was apparent, though, that instead of no leadership, there were multiple people contributing to ineffective and unstable leadership.
The lesson? No group is ever without leadership. Good or bad, there is always some type of leadership – in the absence of competent leadership, others will step in to fill or vie for the role.
The situation becomes, then, one of unstable leadership offered by people who may be unskilled, unproven, unrecognized, or even uncharitable in pushing for their personal agendas, rather than serving the larger good.
My greatest business mentor: Cesar Millan
I have seen this dynamic play out time and time again in working with corporate clients at every level of their respective organizations. Universal laws also affirm that nature abhors a vacuum and unfilled spaces are unnatural.
But even more compelling than laws of physics, nature, or personal observation, I cite the greatest business mentor I’ve ever had: Cesar Millan, the “Dog Whisperer.” Really.
Several years ago, I watched an episode in which Cesar Millan went to help an owner of two dogs who was troubled by seemingly aggressive behavior when visitors came to the door and when he took them out on walks.  The owner, the prominent designer and successful business owner Nate Berkus, was mortified and frustrated by his dogs’ behavior.  Worse, he was fearful that the dogs might cause harm to someone or their pet.
Applying the rules of pack leadership
In short order, Cesar assessed the situation: The dogs did not view the owner as their pack leader. The owner was the source of love and affection, but not leadership – and these dogs needed a leader.
Here’s the interesting thing: In the absence of the owner stepping up to be the leader as the dogs expected or needed him to be, the two dogs alternated to fill the leadership role and that was what caused so much tension and anxiety. Neither dog was viewed by the other as the leader, nor was comfortable being the leader. But the dogsneeded a leader, so when the owner didn’t step into the role, the dogs alternately assumed varying levels of insecure leadership that made them each uncomfortable and tense.
Amazingly, within minutes, Cesar stepped into the situation and established his leadership. Both dogs and the ownerwere in rapt attention, all waiting for direction about what to do next.  The dogs were no longer the problem – Cesar needed only to retrain the owner to consistently lead his pack.
Talk about cultural change.
Having seen numerous examples of Cesar’s work, it is very evident that leadership is so necessary for stability. Even the most uncertain, tentative or insecure individuals will at varying times step in to fill any leadership void.
Now, I refuse to go on record saying that people are like dogs. But I have seen the same phenomenon in the workplace time and time again: People need and want to be led, while at the same time they don’t want to be told what to do. What people need, particularly when working collaboratively, is to know that everyone has the information and tools that they need, and that they are all working toward the same goals. That’s where effective leaders do their most good.
This is important to realize because the so-called “lack of leadership” problem is not one that can be simply repaired by assigning a strong manager to the group. More often, though, I see a desire by businesses to quickly fix a situation by assigning a new manager and giving her or him marching orders to immediately clean up the department.
Relying excessively on positional power, that manager may be as unstable as any of the other quasi-leaders in the group. First, new managers must go through a process of dismantling the prior leadership structures and establishing trust. In order for the new manager to be effective, everyone on the team must be able to relax and know they are in good hands, even if those hands ultimately will help a person move on to another situation where they might be more successful.
Managers, wanting to be successful leaders, need to remember a few key guidelines that are consistent both with Cesar Millan’s approach and with what we at ELI profess as the foundation needed to Build a Civil Workplace™.

  1. Lead by example – in both words and actions.
  2. Be consistent.
  3. Be professional.
  4. Praise successes.
  5. Remain calm and assertive when correcting and coaching for improvement.
  6. Build productive and trusting relationships.
  7. Expand your perspective to look at situations and problems from multiple points of view.

The result: a leader that allows everyone to relax and focus on doing their best work.  That’s a bone worth chasing after.
Tucker Miller is a professional facilitator, regional director and occasional blogger for ELI Inc., a provider of ethics and workplace behavior learning solutions.  She is licensed to practice law in the state of Washington and is a member of the Washington State Bar Association.

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