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Of Leadership and Labradoodles: Do troubling times warrant a new breed of leader?

An illustration of a dog like a boss in an office

When Wally Conran opened a letter from Hawaii, he never imagined the impact it would have on the world. Back in the 80s, Wally was the breeding manager for the Royal Guide Dogs Association of Australia (now known as Guide Dogs Victoria). The letter was from a visually impaired woman who was asking Wally for help given her husband was allergic to dog hair. Wally assumed the solution would be a ‘piece of cake‘ by training standard poodles, known for their hypoallergenic coats, size and strength.

Yet 3 years later after 33 different attempts, Wally couldn’t turn a standard poodle puppy into what it wasn’t. Compared to Labrador Retrievers, considered the best guide dog breed, poodles simply didn’t have what it takes. The experiment failed.

Are leaders born or bred?

Like the husband and wife waiting in Hawaii, we wait and wonder why our current ‘breed’ of leaders fails to meet our expectations. It’s not for the shortage of intellectual discourse on the subject: a quick Google search on ‘leadership’ garnered 884 million results. So much information yet look around… we continue to suffer a crisis of leadership in business, politics, religion, everywhere it seems. The headlines are filled with the follies, faux pas and failures of our elected leaders. Under the guise of ‘leadership’, reports of thinly veiled narcissism prevail.

Seizing on the premise that ‘nurture’ overrules ‘nature’ the global business coaching industry thrives, boasting a $15 billion dollar spend in 2019, up from estimated revenues of $2.4 billion in 2015 [IBISWorld]. In their 2022 Future Trends report they predict Millennial ‘coaching’ will increase by 82%.

But as we continue to invest in ‘leadership’, what is the actual return?

Billions of dollars and countless hours spent on executive coaching, professional image consultants, corporate training courses, seminars, webinars, conferences books and blogs… yet we still suffer a vacuum of leadership. What are we doing wrong? What are we missing? Is it really worth trying to train someone to become something they are not – even if at first, they ‘look the part’?

Desired Traits

Wally tried his best to ‘reprogram the poodles’, but no amount of training was going to shift their genetic predisposition. An alternative course of action was required. He surmised the desired traits he was searching for could only be achieved through crossbreeding, thereby creating a new hybrid. Wally introduced his purebred female Labrador Retriever to a purebred Standard Poodle and, 9 weeks later, the world’s first ‘designer dogs’ came into being, three adorable Labradoodle puppies.

Ironically, only one puppy (named Sultan) fulfilled the original criteria of having the desired hypoallergenic coat. All that time, effort and investment in creating the ‘perfect’ hybrid, yet Wally failed to achieve a litter-full of fluffy perfection. He knew hybrids wouldn’t be a ‘sure thing’, there were too many variables, no certainty that every poodle pup would be hypoallergenic, or have the right disposition to be a proper guide dog. In his line of work, the safe bet was a purebred Labrador Retriever, whose lineage ensured consistent characteristics and predictable results.

Nevertheless, a new star was born much to the delight of one visually impaired woman in Hawaii.

Pandora’s Box

30 years ago, Wally inadvertently sparked a global ‘designer dog’ obsession. Today’s insatiable demand for cross-bred poodles has unleashed cavoodles, groodles, jackapoos, schnoodles, golden doodles, etc. but to what end? Wally wonders if he has “opened a Pandora’s Box and released a Frankenstein’s monster”, calling into question the quality of the breeding process and of those breeding them.

Is our fascination with designer dogs similar to our preoccupation with ‘celebritised’ leaders? Fluff and flair but questionable qualities? I’m not a geneticist, so I am certainly not qualified to concoct the DNA/RNA cocktail required to ensure the procreation of the ‘purebred’ leader. For now, I suppose our best investment would be a balanced programme of smart, sensible education – our universities might be a good place to start.

Tipping the scale

ABC News announced that according to Australia’s Education Minister, Dan Tehan, the cost of studying humanities at university is set to double but “job-relevant” course fees will be slashed – there goes the hope for a balanced program of smart, sensible education.

Tipping the scale of ‘accessibility’ from humanities to job-relevant courses is a short-sighted solution. Humanities – the academic disciplines that study aspects of the human condition and culture – are essential to civilized society. History is important, otherwise we’re doomed to repeat the mistakes of the past. Ethics explores how actions have consequences. Philosophy studies the nature of knowledge, behaviour and accountability. The art of critical thinking and the discipline of creativity fuel much needed innovation. And let’s not forget the proof is in the pudding. Two-thirds of chief executives of ASX200 listed companies have degrees in humanities and 10 of Australia’s Prime Ministers hold a Bachelor of Arts.

As our global economic downturn unfolds, we will be required to take swift action. Make bold moves. Focus on what’s ahead. Find the right balance. Adapt and shape intent. Entice and empower others on the journey – embracing empathy, a strategic imperative. Advancing job-relevant hard-skills at the expense of soft-skills, such as empathy, will come at a cost. Given there are too few leaders now. Can we afford it?

Purebred or Hybrid

As Wally would attest, purebred Labrador Retrievers make great guide dogs. However, his careful blending of genetic markers between two different purebreds created a very useful hybrid – ‘nature’ as an object of design.

So, what of Leadership and Labradoodles? I believe ‘leadership’ is in our nature. We are born with the genetic code, but we still have to choose to ‘be a leader’ .

Paraphrasing Bass and Stogdill’s Handbook of Leadership: they suggest that leadership is a complex mix of genetics as well as the influences from one’s environment/events that impact our mindset, behaviour, creativity, intuition, judgment, vision, risk tolerance, etc. Leaders – who choose to lead – rely on the sum total of their experiences, honed over time, to guide them.

There is no such thing, as a ‘sure thing’. There are no guarantees that leadership development will deliver genuine leaders. We may have the genetic code, but we may not have the predisposition. It’s a choice.

That said, we are the authors of our own life. The qualities of leadership reflect the essence of who a person really is … something to take into consideration in our search for leaders in these troubling times.

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12 replies »

  1. Good article Maureen. The perception has always been that if you are a good “manager” you are a good leader and its been found that those people who have been raised through the ranks aren’t necessarily good leaders.

    Leadership is more than shuffling papers and balancing the books, you need vision together with the respect and trust of your team to take them places where they wouldn’t go on there own.

  2. Great piece, Maureen. I’ve worked for many leaders, but only a few knew how to lead. Big leadership roles do indeed reveal the essence of a person, and whether they have the self-awareness, humility, integrity, courage and vision needed to succeed. A big leadership challenge finds you out either way!

  3. Great read, Maureen. Eleanor Roosevelt – prominent diplomat, activist, and First Lady – said this about the importance of humanities to leadership: “To handle yourself, use your head; to handle others, use your heart.”

  4. Interesting article. Unlike the other comments above, I strongly disagree. There is too many ‘leaders’ trained in the art of leadership, with almost an absolute zero of knowledge in the space they lead. Unfortunately, they are also, far too frequently people who are empowered to make substantive decisions about our futures, or our careers. And they make those decisions based on … what exactly? Perception of who looks trustworthy to them?
    There is too many ‘leaders’ in this world. What we lack is fundamental knowledge, insight and creativity of ideas. And unless we let go of those profoundly unfounded ideas about leadership as be-all and end-all, we will continue decimating the cohorts of those who actually change the world through their knowledge, work, dedication to science. Leaders on their own cannot achieve anything – and we systematically undervalue those that can. It is high time to change the tune.

  5. Thank you Jason, and please pardon the belated ‘congratulations’ in joining Engineers Education Australia – they’re lucky to have you on the team ; )

    I’m very well and hope that you, your family and friends are all safe and sound…

  6. In many companies I have observed a strong confusion between administration and management, combined with a belief that a good or at least competent administrator will be a good manager. Unfortunately this is often not the case, with negligible breadth of vision and foresight being possessed. Similar confusions surround leadership with insufficient emphasis being placed on foresight understanding of innovation and people

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