Animal leadership: what our pets can teach us about leadership


Agile, digital, empathic, transformational – there are a number of leadership models that continue to provide new impetus for effective leadership. Without neglecting these important impulses, however, it is also worth looking at what animals can teach us about leading people. Animal leadership is about just that.

What is animal leadership?

Animal leadership is often about what individual animals can teach us: We should communicate and work in teams, just like wolves do. We should be driven by a singular vision, just like the eagle – and we should adapt quickly to change, just like chameleons.

But animal leadership can also be applied to our pets. If we look at dog leadership, for example, there are many aspects that leaders should definitely consider in human leadership as well – from communication to rewards.

This personal story shows how much – and especially what – we can learn from our pets.

by Jun Iijima

I’m a dog lover, people who know me, are aware of this.
And I have a special passion for Dobermans, dogs which are beautiful but have not such a beautiful reputation.

After 3 years, where I lost my beloved Doberman Dexter, I had an opportunity to help a dog in need. A grown-up Doberman named Zeus; 3,5 years old, huge and very strong with difficult character.

I have approached Zeus with just one big wish: to provide him great home for a certain time, helping him to find a new final home. That was all, no constrains that he is difficult dog, I just saw a misunderstood dog, who has a great character and potential.

And this was the situation, when I have started to think about leadership and what does it mean to see the potential in every one of us and not the danger to fail.

It requires a great deal of empathy and strong communication skills to build and sustain the relationship. If you get it right, it is tremendously rewarding – and if things go wrong, it can be extremely hard to sort out!

So what can our pets teach us about leadership? My time with Zeus gave me this 10 lessons to look at:

1. Focus on all types of communication.

My first Dobermann Dexter was different than Zeus. I could not assume I understand everything from the beginning. I had to listen to expressions, movements and to check the reaction to my communication. Animals obviously can’t talk, but they are very good at communicating what they want to say using non-verbal means, whether that is meowing, barking or their specific behaviour.

But is this not same with us human beings?

We use sometimes different words, but mean same think, we need sometime more time to answer but it does not mean we do not listen.

Sometimes saying noting is a very clear way to communicate as well.

So, we as leaders we need to be able to understand all types of communication and bring this insight together to understand the message that our teams, our colleagues are sharing with us. We as human beings, we have also our own way to communicate, it’s important to be consistent and clear, to explain our end goals and strategy and reinforce how different actions feed into it.

2. Be the leader of the pack.

I was never a fan of fully trained dogs, following blindly my commands.

For me it was important to allow the dog to keep his personality, stay curious, friendly, and playful and see in me his safe place in case of any danger, but to follow the agreed rules between us.

I think these are also facts which count in human-to-human relationship, in private life but also at work. If we and our teams will stay curious, the chance to land at the dead-end is very low. If we stay friendly and know, that in difficult situations we will be there for each other, it will create a culture, where you are able to fail, but the curiosity will help you to learn for the future. Therefore, we, the leaders, need to stay open, approachable and deliver this leadership when it is needed, while setting boundaries around behavior.

3. Use rewards to enhance performance.

If you are a dog owner, you know this magic word, you should never say loud next to your dog: T-R-E-A-T.

Well, Zeus was not interested in classical treats a lot.

His treats were different once: he liked calm voice, a bit of pet but also not too much, he liked routine and short commands.

This lesson showed me, rewards are important, but we, as leaders need to respect the needs of our team members. And it’s sometimes not all about performance, but also about attitude, learning curve, willingness to learn and support in driving the transformation or change. A reward can be everything: additional holiday, a small gift or a simple thank you. This will show that you recognise and reward the right behaviors, which helps build strong, positive cultures and relationships.

4. Keep calm and manage the situation.

If you have a “difficult” dog, sometime thing might happen, which will lead to stress and a lot of thoughts. But you are not disappointed at this moment, as you knew, you had a difficult dog. Zeus brought me in some situations like this, but I have always tried to understand why it came as it came. In such a moment it would be not helpful to be angry, not with yourself and not at all with Zeus.

As a leader, we face a lot of times situations, where it’s important to understand, why things are as they are. In the human-to-human communication, it’s also important to share the difficulty you have with the situation as well, as both sides need to understand what is going on. At the end, it’s key to find a way out. To realize fast lessons learned and define rules, actions, and next steps. Of course, you should explain the consequences of the action and acknowledge that it has caused a problem. Remember that attitudes and behaviors are contagious in both a positive and negative way – how you behave will impact how your team members behave at work.

5. Build trust.

Staying calm and resolving the situations with Zeus, gave him the trust. I have recognized it, as his “difficulties” become to be smaller and smaller. Zeus recognized that a failure was not automatically meaning, he will lose his home, will be pushed to the next location. We worked on the situations and now there is nearly no more need for him to act like this.

While leaders shouldn’t overlook poor performance or issues at work, they shouldn’t dwell on the problem. Whether it is someone more junior in your team or a more senior colleague, tackle the issue, work on improvement together. Do not let things unspoken, do not expect someone else will manage it. Create understating and trust, that issues will be addressed and resolved.

6. Be curious and keep learning.

Zeus showed me, how complex the previous life of a dog can be and that this can drive our partnership and experience every day new. For me it was important to see every interaction from new angle every day to learn all facets of his personality. He showed me also, how open he was every day more and more to trust me and added new experience with me to our daily routine, this was his feedback to me.

And I think, this is the key in our interactions with team members, clients, and sparring partners: we do not know, what is driving sometimes our counterpart. It’s always important to acknowledge and to respect it. We, leaders, should adopt the same concept of always learning and trying something different. That could be identifying opportunities to improve in certain areas, using feedback from colleagues and team members to update how you work. The key is remaining open and curious and willing to learn. This will not only improve your own skills but encourage your team to follow your example and look at how they can develop themselves.

7. Take a break!

Pets spend a large part of their day asleep. In fact, it can seem that they are either 100% awake and active or snoozing in the corner. They understand the importance of taking a break, and everyone should apply the same logic to their working lives.

Getting the right amount of sleep is crucial to being able to operate effectively, as is fresh air and exercise. Whether working at home or in the office, having a break and going outside will refresh and revitalize you – and provides the chance to take your dog for a walk!

8. Be committed.

The decision to take a “difficult” dog is a commitment. There should be no doubts or fear. Just the mission you have, should be in focus. Your entire attitude will provide the non-verbal commitment to the dog.

Being a leader is also commitment. A commitment to the company, to your team and to the goals. Everyone, you manager, your colleagues, and your team should be able to count on it, to count on you.

Your team members are not helpless; however, they need your support to help them manage their work, resolve problems, and have time to drive innovation and find in you a valuable partner. You need to listen to their feedback and take action to deliver the right experience that meets their individual needs.

9. Demonstrate empathy and understanding.

My passion for Dobermans is a base for my strong commitment to them and this is automatically enabling me to show empathy and understanding.  In return I have now a second Dobermann in my life, who is showing me his sympathy, listening to me, and following me, he accepted me, regardless how bad his experience with humans was before.

And now you probably ask yourself, how does it fit in my professional live as a leader?

All my years of working showed me one thing: I can understand a vision, form the strategy, and lead my teams thru it, if I do it with passion. Thru the years I have met a lot of different personalities and in my young years I was not empathic and understanding, but with the years I have recognized, that the different types of people can also address different type of opportunities and it’s valuable to have this diversity of mindset. And specially in sales relevant positions we tend to have strong personalities. So, let’s see this as a value to our teams and support this. Of course, pulling in one direction, committing to the goals this is what everyone must take as a personal decision, but then it’s our passion to our work, our creativity which let the things happen.

10. …… I’m not good in helping dogs in need…..

Everything what drives me to help, is the commitment, empathy and understanding.

At the end I build a very strong relationship and it’s hard to let the dog go…

As leader, we need to know, what is the best for our team members. It’s important to understand the growth potential, the interests and needs and even its internal promotion, it’s also important to help them growth outside of organization. This is creating wonderful friendships and people with whom you will stay in touch even in 10-20 years from now on.

How Tivian helps improve leadership

While we can’t provide guidance on how to deal with your pets, Tivian’s software is dedicated to helping improve leadership and the wider employee experience.

Tivian’s Leadership 360 solution enables leaders to continually learn and develop by collecting and acting on 360 degree feedback from their managers, peers, subordinates, and colleagues. By uncovering areas for growth and development it enables high-performing leaders to become more effective, accelerating organizational success.

Our employee experience platform enables you to create the perfect environment for every one of your people. Designed to uncover insights and inspire action, it allows you to regularly listen to every employee’s feedback and then understand and act on what they are saying, helping you increase productivity, reduce churn, and attract talent.

Learn about Tivian’s solutions in a free demo or read more about leadership.