Fostering Dogs — a Metaphor for Servant Leadership

I’m usually not a fan of “leadership philosophies” on LinkedIn. For one thing, they’re often espoused by people who have never actually led a group of people or been invested in their success. For another, they usually feel a bit half-baked and under-developed.

That said, I am generally a fan of the idea of servant leadership. The idea dates back to the 1970s, when Robert Greenleaf coined the term, and generally means that a leader should not only be relatable to the people they lead but should also be invested in the success of those people rather than their own.

In a business setting, granting your employees more agency in their roles (rather than telling them what to do) creates more skilled and confident employees. Skilled and confident employees will produce far more good ideas and operations innovations than any leadership team ever could. 

Better still, you’re crowd-sourcing leadership, making leaders’ roles easier as employees are able to take on some of the leadership burdens. This allows leaders to focus on vision and long-term strategy rather than corporate minutia.

What Does This Have to Do With Dogs?

I’ve been fostering dogs for a long time, and I’ve found that the way I interact with dogs is a decent metaphor for my approach to leadership. Whether I’m helping people grow professionally or helping dogs become well, the general approach and mindset are actually similar — it’s a commitment to a purpose that includes you but goes beyond you to make lives (including yours) better.

As a leader, my focus is always on giving encouragement, safety, resources, and guidance to help individuals become more developed than they were the day before. I’ve fostered dogs who were absolutely bewildered by the concept of a treat or a toy, who were not used to human attention that is not abusive, or who didn’t even know it was possible to walk inside a house. 

Likewise, there are many professionals who have been babysat by previous bosses to such an extent that they haven’t had the opportunity to develop basic competencies, such as the ability to problem-solve, present ideas coherently, or consider the possibility of directly impacting and improving their immediate areas of responsibility. 

Foreign concepts take a while to become normalized. Just because a dog doesn’t know how to walk on a hardwood floor or an employee doesn’t know how to lead a meeting doesn’t mean they don’t have the ability or desire to learn. What they need is not to be forced into uncomfortable areas, but to be helped into learning how to expand their skills.

Change is incremental, and that’s a good thing. While the leader’s focus is always on that initial vision of helping dogs and people become happy and autonomous and fulfilled, the reality is that it’s a day-by-day process that requires a lot of training and support. The ideal end-state requires a lot of foundation building and that takes a lot of effort across months or even years of time. It’s a true commitment and probably one of the most important commitments a leader can make.

Participating in this purpose is fulfilling for leaders in a self-actualizing way, but it also simply makes sense. The more autonomous and empowered dogs and people become, the less they need to look externally to a leader for support. Eventually, you as a leader will have to loosen the reins and take a step back from the day-to-day operations of your team (or just go on vacation), and you want employees to be able to hold down the fort while you’re gone. Encouraging independence isn’t just a good way to help your employees develop, it’s the best way to grow your company.

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