Canis lupus familiaris: Basset Hound, Natural Leader
The Basset Hound is a short-legged breed of dog of the hound family. The Basset is a scent hound that was originally bred for the purpose of hunting hare. Their sense of smell for tracking is second only to that of the Bloodhound. The name Basset is derived from the French word bas, meaning “low”, with the attenuating suffix -et meaning “small”, together meaning “rather low”. Basset Hounds are usually bicolours or tricolours of standard hound coloration (Wikipedia)
As a student and would-be practitioner of leadership, I strive to find inspiring role models wherever I can. Today I need look no further than that legendary descendant of wolves around which our household is organized: Clover the Basset Hound. Sometimes, after Clover trips me up in the kitchen, or sits on my computer adding dozens of extra letters to my manuscript, I ask the perennial question: “What the hey was I thinking when I turned a wild animal loose in my house! ” Yet, giving her a good belly rub cheers both of us up, so I am glad she adopted us.
Nevertheless, some may feel it to be a stretch to consider her and her extended family models for organizational leadership. I assure you, they are gifted with traits we should envy.
- Smell: Bassets, as Wikipedia explains, are only second to Bloodhounds in their ability to pick up a scent. Not only is the nose keen, however. Bassets have long ears that gather outlying scent possibilities and focus them so the nose can detect them. Good managers make sure that an organization runs smoothly and productively. Interruptions mean loss. Leaders, however, try to sniff our exceptional opportunities. Typically, they can identify many possibilities, although most will prove distractions. Hence the leaders’ ability to focus on, and then follow, that one singularly promising opportunity distinguishes the entrepreneurial leader from the merely compulsive one who ends up merely chasing his tail.
- Packs: Bassets enjoy running and hunting in packs (remember, no rabbits have been hurt in this blog). This tendency permits them to cover maximum territory in the pursuit of game. Each gifted individual has the opportunity to lead the pack temporarily to the big find discovered under a tree trunk or behind a bush. Similarly, while coordination can make an organization run smoothly, too much control limits success. Leadership holds in tension both collaboration and freedom. Each member of the team may have a portfolio of duties that matches gifts and skills, yet a common vision, good communication, and camaraderie allow workmates to perceive themselves as contributing teammates empowering each other in the joy of the hunt. Leadership is shared and multiplied over the whole team.
- The Bay: Bassets communicate in a variety of ways to signal the rest of the pack. They growl when another dog crosses into their territory. They whine when their humans under-perform. They bark to trash talk. Bassets reserve the bay for the primary task of the hunt. It begins with a singular howl that warns the rest of the pack that game is afoot. As the action continues, the bay moves into more of warble, probably signalling something about the prey’s movement. In a similar manner, leaders need to learn the various “like languages’ of their individual staff persons, i.e how to signal approval of the staff persons’ being and service in ways each staff person can understand. Leaders also need to learn how each staff person receives information most readily: in person, by text, email, etc. Leaders need to learn to vary their tone and words to signal the relative importance they attach to any particular communication. If they consistently use the same tone and words, they make their staff tone deaf to priorities. Specifically, leaders can accidentally signal there are none. Leaders must be patient as their staff persons learn what elicits from leaders a growl, a whine, a bark or a bay.
- The Tail: Uniformly bassets have a splash of white at the end of their tails. This serves too as a system of communications. Just as the bay and warble appear to track the movements of the prey, the tails signals where the bassets themselves are. Tails also serve when the basset gets physically stuck: The white tip clearly says, “Here I am. Please grab and pull this!” Much has been written about leaders possessing a “true north,” an unerring ethical orientation and final vision on which followers can count. Communicating this true north regularly reminds those who follow where the leaders can be found. When leaders wrestle with situations that might demand the compromise of true north for a greater good, or that represent a clash of core ethical values, bringing followers into the decision-making mix can help make them partners in decision-making. Broader participation may also help leaders get unstuck from the trap of circular thinking.
- The Skin: Bassets’ notorious expression of comic sadness comes from the folds of skin that lie on their faces. Grab the skin at the neck and pull, and the folds disappear entirely. Breeding bassets with skin folds has a distinct defensive advantage.
When an another animal attacks a basset at the neck, it finds nothing but skin. More to the point, even with its neck skin grabbed, a basset can turn 180 degrees and bring teeth to bear on the aggressor. In a similar manner, leadership should have the flexibility both to honor core values of the organization yet be able pivot to meet organizational challenges and opportunities head on. Indeed, servant-leadership teaches that leaders need to able to read and project from present circumstances to possible future trends. Yet surprises come, and surprised leaders and those they lead need to be flexible.
- The Body Drag: Some bassets bite, yet their iron jaw grip often serves another purpose. if they actually catch fleeing game, bassets have the ability to grab on with teeth and then do a belly flop (play tug of war with a basset and you can view the phenomenon. Or, try to take a basset on a walk she doesn’t want to take). This trick slows the game down, and actually wears it out. Sometimes leadership looks like caution when staff persons get carried away with a new idea. It can even look like non-cooperation when an injustice is about to occur. Courts weigh in, memos get leaked, files disappear, decisions get overlooked: When others follow suit, this too is leadership.
- The Run and Roll Block: If you are larger than a basset and chasing it, the basset has a maneuver borrowed from martial arts. She will suddenly turn sideways and roll over. The result for the unsuspecting pursuer is taking a head-long tumble, with the basset gleefully licking the face of the victim who now lies prone. At first blush, it may be difficult to see how this applies to leadership, yet we may recall the saying of Gandhi: “There goes my people. I must follow them, for I am their leader.” Contrary, to myth, good leaders typically don’t stand alone against all odds. Indeed, to be alone is to lack leadership. Good leaders know the powerful momentum that can sometimes grip crowds and organizations. Momentum is neutral: Its destination is not. A crowd cheering on a winning team has a different quality than a mob committed to doing violence. Getting in on the bottom of an IPO is different than joining a gold rush. When momentum appears in their organization, leaders know to get out in front in order to accomplish one of two tasks: either to serve it by providing direction or to bring the forward motion to an end before it gets out hand. The choice for leaders often gets down to asking a single analytical question and making a choice: Is the momentum carrying the organization towards its work goals in a manner that will likely prove successful, or is this powerful movement the mere product of emotion and false assumptions that will peter out?
- The Subterfuge: This quality makes bassets both comedic and aggravating. They can sit quietly, apparently minding their own business. Then suddenly they will move quickly and explosively to achieve some goal. Our Clover, if she knows someone doesn’t like dogs, will dither around in the person’s area and show little interest. She might even trot out in the opposite direct, as if pursuing some other interest. Then she will suddenly sprint, launch herself into the air into the person’s lap, and then french kiss the horrified victim of her unwanted affections. Clover will make noise in one part of the house to draw our attention and then run quickly to wreak havoc in another. One night I came home, to find her fast asleep. I placed the baguette I had purchased on the kitchen counter and went outside to lock the car. When I re-entered, she had the baguette in her mouth and trying to get through a door into a dark room, an effort only frustrated by the baguette itself. Sneaky leadership is intolerable. Yet leaders should learn to know when to move publicly and quickly to accomplish some end and when to hang back, when to exert energy and when to rest, and when to exert obvious leadership and when to create a vacuum so others feel invited to lead themselves. As Ecclesiastes 3 teaches, the seasons change and leadership must adjust to them.
- The Commonsense: Bassets have amazing gifts that serve their purposes well, especially when it comes to food. Like a mouse or rat, they can collapse their bodies and squeeze through amazingly small apertures. They have incredibly strong legs and paws, something to recall you find your basset lounging on your dining room table and the freshly baked cake gone. Yet for all their gifts, bassets can’t swim. They know this limitation and typically avoid encounters with water. Leadership means power, yet servant-leader teaches that power can be endlessly multiplied and given away. The servant-leader doesn’t try to do tasks not within her or her gift set, but instead gives away authority and responsibility to others on the team.
In conclusion, I can’t speak to the leadership gifts of other breeds. I only know the lessons that my basset hound has taught me. Old dogs can learn new tricks.