Everything I know about leadership I learn from my dogs: Leading difficult employees

Barb Krantz Taylor | December 11, 2023 | Blog | 2 minute read

It’s been a while since I’ve reflected on leadership lessons, I learn from working my Australian Shepherds, Fire and Sierra. Today I want to talk about my leadership journey with Fire. Fire is 8 years old. She lives up to her name. She is well, fiery—enthusiastic, fierce, and driven. She loves the dog sport of agility. She lives to run-fast. She is also excitable and tells me when my directions are late or unclear. When my handling is not good, she barks–loud. If I could translate her language, there would be swear words involved.

Most of my friends in the sport agree that Fire is a “difficult” dog to run. She has certainly been my most challenging dog—one that has helped me improve my handling the most. When she is good, she is great. In a typical competition weekend, she is amazing in one moment and frustrating the next. When she is amazing, I feel like a great “leader” and when she is not, I feel like I have failed.

Working with Fire is like working with a “difficult employee”. Like Fire, these employees can be both talented AND leave you angry, frustrated, and helpless. Like these employees, Fire knows her “job”. She has been trained and in class, she is practically perfect. Yet in a competition weekend, she can be brilliant one moment and totally “off course” in the next. I can’t let her get away with anything or she pushes boundaries. Sound familiar?

Fire requires me to be better leader. As do difficult employees. To bring out their best, we have to be at OUR best. When they are brilliant, we have to let them know. And when they cross lines, we have to communicate it clearly and consistently, holding them accountable by explaining specifically what went wrong and the impact it had. And, as frustrated as we may get, we need to communicate with respect, without shaming or blaming—or losing our temper.

A friend sent me this quote about training dogs today and it is equally true about leading people:

The most challenging dogs have taught me most.

In addition to the nuance of their individual training, they taught me to lose my ego and impatience.

They’ve helped me gain accountability, self-awareness and trust.

Even though I’ve often missed their message the first time, they don’t give up on me.

Not every day feels like a win and things don’t often go as planned with a difficult dog.

But I have so much gratitude for what they’ve helped me to understand about connection; they’ve taught me to raise the expectation of my teaching, instead of my expectation of them.

–Macrae Sheepdogs

Do you have a “difficult” employee who you love but also drives you to the edge? I get it. And I’d be glad to coach you through how YOUR leadership can make a difference in their performance.