Leadership 1.0.1 [the dog story]

Once upon a time circa 1990’s I was a ‘2nd Lieutenant’. Post commissioning I joined my venerable infantry unit where my seniors disseminated to me on an ongoing basis, different mantras. For me the most important mantra to be successful and have peace of mind was: “Keep your mouth shut and just listen and learn. If possible be invisible.” I gamely tried adhering to these diktat, but the quality of being invisible, was beyond my reach.

My unit was in the process of being inducted into Kashmir Valley, promising some moments of adrenaline rush. Before the movement by road, there was a mandatory wait at a staging area in Jammu, which lasted for a couple of weeks. I fruitfully spent this time in learning to understand the quintessential magic that permeated the functioning of an infantry battalion. During this period, I had the good fortune of accompanying my senior [ordered is the more apt term] to witness a dog obedience training display. I was delighted to witness this, as essentially I am a dog man. I was excited, as this would be my first chance to see these furry soldiers in action. During the display we saw bomb detection sniffers dogs and tracker dogs. And the most awe-inspiring sight was seeing the ferocity and focus of the guard dogs displayed in chasing down their targets. After the session got over we went to see these magnificent beasts and were warned to keep a respectful distance; a superfluous instruction given their demeanour.

As is the norm in the Indian army, after such events tea & eats were laid out and me being the perpetually famished 2nd Lieutenant, did justice to the fare. Soon my senior accosted me so I stopped my gorging and once he was sure that he had my undivided attention asked me ‘So what did you learn?’ I thought what a stupid [obviously unvoiced] question and I launched into a spiel on dogs/K9 being inducted into the valley. I expounded on what splendid creatures these dogs were and also complimented the high standard of training. Looking at the exasperation on his face, I divined that it was not the right answer and waited for him to elaborate. He gave me a hint asking me to comment on the interactions between the dogs and their handlers. I responded: ‘handlers gave the command and the dogs carried it out’. Evidently I had again missed the mark so he decided that before he had a brain aneurysm to educate me and said, “the dog was addressed by its name and it responded. Also at the end of each task the handler made it a point to pat the dog to appreciate the dog on completion of the task.” The moment of epiphany, that would reveal how this was connected with my position as a 2nd Lieutenant, seemed to evade me.

My senior helpfully decided to clear up the fog and further elaborated, “this is just a dog – imagine the benefits if you adopt this method with humans”. There was a mighty click and I finally understood. It made so much sense to call a person by name; during stressful times the person will respond favourably and after a job is done it is so very important that the person is appreciated. From that day on, it has been my continual endeavour to remember my colleague’s names and appreciate their efforts at all times.. I have since then come a long way from that fateful day & I thank my senior for his patience in giving me this life lesson. This lesson has since remained hard wired into my psyche.

I have seen that some of us celebrate failures in a grandiose manner and successes in a wishy-washy manner. Is that right? Should it not be the other way around? Are not organisations built on the bedrock of successes of your teammates or is it by harping on their failures? Should we not treat individuals as distinct human beings and empathise with them? Or have many us taken the easy path of being a just ‘A Manager’ and not a “Leader”? Is that what you want? “Leaders are eternal managers are transient”. Make your choice. And make the right choice.

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