My daughter and I watched an episode of The Dog Whisperer with Cesar Millan recently. For those of you unfamiliar, Cesar Millan is an expert in the psychology and behavior of dogs. He helps people work with and solve their dogs’ behavioral issues. On this particular show, Millan was visiting a ranch and teamed up with the Horse Whisperer, Pat Parelli, to help deal with a difficult horse and two troublesome dogs.

As I watched the “whisperers” in action I realized that the approach they took in working with the animals were very similar to the kinds of actions that great leaders employ. Is effective leadership really about being a People Whisperer? Here are a few lessons I gleaned from the whisperers:

  • Be aware of your energy – Dogs and horses are highly attuned to the energy of the people around them. If you are projecting nervous, anxious energy the animal will sense that and become nervous and anxious as well. On the other hand, calm assertive energy will send the message that you are in control and prepared to deal with the issues in a positive way. Noticing the energy you are projecting and managing your energy are important aspects of your self-awareness and self-leadership. A leader who consistently interacts using tense, stressful energy will create a tense, stressful work environment within his or her team, negatively impacting engagement and results. Managing your energy through regular renewal and self-care sets the right example and focuses on positive productivity for your team.
  • Be clear about what you want – The whisperers demonstrated how mixed messages generate bad results. Petting and cuddling a dog after it has tried to bite someone will give you more of the bad behavior, and if everyone in the family is not committed to the steps you need to take to improve behavior, results will suffer. One of the biggest complaints we hear from employees is the frustration they feel when leaders send mixed signals or deliver conflicting messages and priorities. Taking the time to get on the same page, committing to the actions necessary to achieve results, and standing firm when resistance or low commitment begin to set in will show employees that you have the clarity and focus needed for a team’s success.
  • Be willing to take responsibility – The Dog Whisperer and Horse Whisperer focused on the owners as much as, if not more than, the animals in creating a better dynamic for everyone. Most of the behavior issues that they confronted could be directly attributed to the actions of the animals’ owners. If the owners were not willing to be accountable, take responsibility, and change their behavior, then ultimately the situation would not change. Great leaders are willing to look within, be accountable for their actions or inaction, and take responsibility for changes that are needed.
  • Be a positive reinforcer – The main premise of the training principles of both Cesar Millan and Pat Parelli is the importance of staying positive and focusing on the positive. They demonstrate overwhelmingly that you get more from using positive encouragement – carrots, treats, praise, acknowledgment, rewards, and recognition – than from negative consequences – punishment, criticism, takeaways, and blame. That goes for horses, dogs, and people.

Leading people is obviously not the same as training dogs and horses, yet the best trainers – the Whisperers – understand that leadership is at the heart of real and lasting change.

Where can you tap into your inner whisperer to lead more effectively?
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