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Leadership Lessons from Cosmo

I met him while volunteering at the county animal shelter back in 2008.

The shelter staff had named him Sioux, which is one of those rugged, masculine names that is much cooler written than spoken.  While there were many dogs I would walk those days I volunteered, he made a big impression on me.

He had already been there a couple of weeks, and his prospects for adoption weren’t great.  He wasn’t one of those dogs that greet you at the front of the kennel with a waggy tail and a smiling face, and his behavior made it clear that he had been abused.   He was very fearful, skittish, and shut down.

And yet, there was something special about him.  The time I spent with him, it seemed that his unique soul whispered to me, “I’m a diamond in the rough”.

So, it wasn’t long before he found his forever home, and a new name – Cosmo.

As the years rolled by, and as we both matured past many of the things that used to scare us, I realize just how much I’ve learned from him.

Here are some of the lessons that Cosmo has taught me about leadership and life:

  1. Create Connection

When Cosmo joined us, he was filled with fear.  It was clear that a stern approach wouldn’t work with him.  Like many employees, he lacked confidence and didn’t respond well to top down, authoritarian styles.

What worked much better for Cosmo, as for most people, was a partnered approach.  When connection is emphasized, a leader will yield more effective results by allowing others the space to thrive.

  1. Access Transformation Through Trust

Cosmo was scared of getting in the car; going up the stairs; people approaching him – pretty much anything that wasn’t food-related.  And, he was capable of overcoming it.  It took playful creativity, consistency, and trusting support from his furry and human family to bring out his best self, proving that transformation is possible with the right leadership.

Effective leaders create a safe space for us to go beyond our fears to become more of who we are, and operate up to our potential.

  1. Live in the Present

Cosmo is forgiveness in action.  If I mistakenly step on his foot, it takes a nanosecond for him to get back to being happy for a walk, or a treat, and he doesn’t interpret it as “daddy doesn’t care”.  He also doesn’t get angry when I don’t have time to play; or when I deny a table scrap feeding.

And, Cosmo teaches me that little, or not so little, day-to-day annoyances like chewed-up tchotchkes, don’t really matter.  What matters is the larger bond, the bigger picture, the lessons learned.  No dwelling, no ruminating about something in the past; no getting caught up in what someone said, did, or didn’t do.

Mistakes happen, feelings can get hurt, but our furry friends remind us that staying present and ditching our “interpretations” will allow us to return to joy and productivity much more quickly. 

  1. Operate With Authenticity

Cosmo lets me know exactly how he feels, at any moment.  He doesn’t drop hints, and doesn’t sulk and shut me out if I don’t pick up on what he wants right away.  No inauthentic, incongruent behaviors, or misleading communication.

Research identifies “authenticity” as one of the most important leadership qualities, and it is closely aligned with a leader’s integrity.  Imagine if we walked our talk and we all communicated as openly, clearly and authentically as our four-legged friends do!

  1. Practice Openness & Detachment 

Most of us get stuck in our own opinion and ideas of how something should be done, should look like, or should be said.  We cease being engaged listeners, severing communication and creative problem solving along the way because we’re convinced that our way is the best way.

Cosmo is the opposite; a picture of openness.  Whether we go for long hikes or short walks, he’s not focusing on where we’re going, how long it will last, how does it look, and what will happen later.  He is a master of “detachment”.

When we’re stuck on a specific strategy or attached to the outcome, we set ourselves up for disappointment if things don’t turn out “according to plan”.  When we’re attached, we become rigid and myopic, shutting down the possibility of joyful creating and effective problem solving in the process.

Cosmo reminds us to stay open to see all the possibilities available.  By staying open, we have access to more options and greater creativity in leadership.

6. Integrate Gratitude & Acknowledgment

Cosmo, with his mentor, Dante

Our four-legged friends have lots to teach us about gratitude and acknowledgment, without ever saying a word.  A soulful look into each other’s eyes, a joyful greeting, or simply laying next to me in silence during a rough day, Cosmo shows his gratitude daily.

As leaders, one of the most powerful communication tools we possess is to express our gratitude and acknowledgement of others.  While praise is great for dogs, we can go further to make an impact on our co-workers.  If you’ve ever expressed gratitude for contributions by a teammate, you have likely experienced the power it produces. 

When leaders go further and acknowledge the contributions of their teammates, co-workers feel both empowered and honored for what they bring to the team or project that generates success.

I’m grateful to Cosmo for his companionship over the years, and, reflecting on the lessons from our four-legged buddies always provides a wonderful narrative in which to elevate our leadership.  Dog will always be my co-pilot!