Learning in Unlikely Places


I love to watch Cesar Millan’s “The Dog Whisperer” program on TV. I am a dog lover and currently share an office and home with Edgar the Leadership Pug, who is wise beyond his pug-ness about how to lead his human pack. My husband and I have learned a thing or two from Edgar and Cesar’s show in order to take pack leadership back into our hands, where it belongs.

Cesar’s skill is not only the work he does with the dogs. His true gifts are in teaching the dog’s owners that well behaved canines are really about the owner’s willingness and ability to step up to being a (pack) leader. The lessons he teaches are insightful for any leader.

Note: I don’t intend this post to compare leaders and employees to dogs, but rather to emphasize that the lessons of leadership can be learned in a variety of ways. If you are a dog lover (and maybe even if you aren’t) you can learn a lot from Cesar.

Some of the leadership lessons Cesar teaches us humans:

In order to lead your dog well, you must understand how they want to be treated: Cesar shows that the best trained dogs are treated as – well, a dog would want to be treated if they were part of a pack. As an organizational leader, it is important that you get to know your people. What are their strengths? How do they want to use them? How can you best lead them?

Clearly communicate your rules, boundaries and limitations: Communicating with our canine friends is not easy, but it must be clear and in their “language”. Similarly, followers are looking for clarity in your expectations. Find a way to communicate them simply and well. Then repeat your expectations in as many ways possible.

Use calm, assertive energy: Cesar teaches humans that screaming, yelling and anger only serve to escalate the energy of the dog to that level; they are ineffective at best and can be destructive. Organizational leaders who use these techniques must also find a way to stop using these emotions that can be “caught” like viruses in the organizations they lead.

Imagine a successful scenario: Cesar works with humans to understand that their pets can, and do, change. Likewise, organizational leaders must believe that their employees have great potential and recognize when it is realized.

If you stay alert, you might find lessons in leadership where you least expect it. What are the unlikely places that you find leadership wisdom?


I am a former executive in a Fortune 100 company. I have owned and operated an executive coaching firm since 2003 called Aspire Collaborative Services LLC. We partner with great leaders to help them become even greater at developing, improving, and sustaining relationships with the people who are essential to their success. This blog is for leaders and those who help them to be more intentional about relationships at work. My top personal values include respect for others, kindness, compassion, collaboration and gratitude. I work very hard at practicing my values daily and when I don’t succeed, I practice some more. I am married with two wonderful daughters and two spoiled pugs.

14 comments on “Learning in Unlikely Places

  1. Great post Mary Jo — I think the theme of your post is on point. Through examination of our surroundings and reflection, we can indeed “see” opportunities to learn from many perspectives. It doesn’t necessarily need to be in the traditional sense (classroom, workshop, etc) but if we look close enough and pay attention – there are lessons all around us. Thanks!

  2. I think a lot of this makes great sense for leaders, Mary Jo. In fact, I think it is fantastic advice. However, what is behind Ceaser’s teaching is troubling. Pack theory has been debunked in wild wolf populations. None of the behaviors that Millan uses to convince dogs he’s their pack leader actually exist in nature–for wolves or dogs.

  3. Mary Jo- While I can’t say my long-haired chihuahua, Pico, displays pack leadership qualities, I enjoyed the different perspective for teaching leadership lessons. Keep up the good work!

  4. I have twenty-two horses that have taught me most of what I know about leadership. What I like most about watching Caesar is that he puts the responsibility on the pack leaders (the humans) to change and improve. There are no ‘bad’ dogs only ineffective human leaders.

  5. Miguel, your comment is borne out by Laura and her comments about her horses – below.

    Jason, thanks for the update. All I know is that some of his techniques have worked, and there are some lessons there for leaders.

    Kevin, hard to think about chihuahua’s and pug’s having any behavior left in them from their ancestors. Nonetheless, thanks, as always for stopping over and for your support!

    Laura, I’ve used horses with some of my clients who are willing to try something new. They are fantastic teachers. And you’ve nailed why I like Caesar too.

  6. The leadership lessons I have learned from my dog is that you need to display who is in charge. This is a skill that is harder than it sounds when you transfer it to people. Particularly to do so in a manner that doesn’t offend or rub people the wrong way. Dogs just like people will bristle if their leaders don’t treat them right.

  7. Mary Jo, I really like that you recognize that leadership skills can be learned at any time in any place. Some of the greatest leaders in my life have been those that seemed far more knowledgeable than me, but they still did everything they could to try to learn. Leadership skills can be found in so many areas. The more I observe everyday things in life, with the mindset of trying to learn leadership behavior, the more I am able to learn and improve myself. Thank you for reminding me of the importance of continually trying to learn leadership skills in every aspect of life.

  8. Great post Mary Jo based on Ceasar Millan’s “the dog whisperer” tv show. I love statement # 3, as leaders we really need to learn how to stay calm when the fire is on, otherwise our employees can perceive right away whether we lose our external locus of control. Therefore, let’s provide quality performance training to our followers, let’s get to know them, and let’s put them to work and we will have a much effective and healthy work environment!
    Thnak you very much for sharing your work with us!

  9. Mary Jo,
    What a great article and I have never thought about leadership in those terms. In fact, last week in one of my classes we discussed leadership and personality and this is so dead on. Becoming a good, or great, leader is like becoming a pack leader and getting to know your employees is like knowing your pack. I would never have put the two scenarios together and I can’t wait to share this article with my fellow classmates.

  10. Mary Jo,

    Thanks for the great post on leadership wisdom. Although these insights may seem like basic foundations of good leadership, they are often overlooked by those in leadership positions. The point that stands out to most to me is the first point about getting to know your employees. This point made me recall a conversation I had with someone the other day. This person just moved into in a new leadership position at their work and wanted to get to know a little about his employees by asking questions, such as, what they like about their job, what they dislike, etc. The employees reacted by asking if he was cutting people from the team. What this says to me is that people who have led them before did not really bother to get to understand their employees in order to develop a relationship where the leader understands how their employees would like to be treated and what their strengths and weaknesses are. If leaders don’t even try to understand what their employees are like, they miss a great opportunity for learning how they can truly be an effective leader to their team.

  11. Wade, great lesson, thanks for sharing.

    Brandon, two bloggers who exemplify and write about finding leadership lessons in every day life are Becky Robinson at Mountain State University: http://mountainstate.typepad.com/leadership/ and Dan Mulhern at Everyday Leadership: http://www.danmulhern.com/wordpress/ Be sure and check them out!

    Javier, thanks for the encouragement!

    Nicole, I’m glad this post got you to think differently about leadership. Good luck in class!

  12. Hi Dan, Ken and I spend every Friday night watching The Dog Whisperer. Some people would consider that sad; but we really enjoy it too – not just for the dog training, but for the people learning part. I heard Cesar is on the corporate speaking circuit for this reason!

  13. Lovely article, Mary Jo. I’m more of a lab person, but all dogs are great training tools for their masters. Dogs expect their masters to lead and set boundaries, otherwise they get confused, even upset.

    Many of the “problem dogs” in Cesar’s show are results of bad masters, not bad dogs. Half of the time Cesar is not training the dog — he is training the master.

    Thanks again for brining up the furry subject. 🙂

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