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Cow dog leadership

Ask my father who the best leader and all-around team player was on our farm, and he'll give you one answer--our Border Collie cow dog.

Pippi the cow dog never read Stephen Covey's "Seven Habits of Highly Effective People." She never quite got the grasp of winning friends and influencing people. And the only reason she cared that you moved her cheese was because she was fond of food in any form.

Yet, Pippi taught us lessons about inter-personal relationships that aren't covered in any best-selling self-help book.

First, Pippi knew her place in the farm hierarchy. The cattle, sheep and small children answered to her, and she ultimately answered to my father. She didn't have worries about layoffs due to Milk Bone shortages, or being replaced by a fuel-efficient motorized cow dog. She had the ultimate in job security because she made herself invaluable.

Good leaders know their own place in the grand scheme of things and are comfortable in it. Because they're comfortable in their position, they're able to inspire confidence in their followers.

Loyalty is another valued trait in a leader, and Pippi had that in spades. As far as she was concerned, the sun rose and set at the whim of my father. There was no question about her being hired away to a competing farm. My father could command Pippi to do anything with a whistle. And, he could have abused that power by sending her into harm, but he never did.

Successful leaders, like Pippi, place their loyalty and trust in worthy people and likewise inspire it in others.

Now, a good cow dog, like a good leader, also knows that supporting the team from behind is more important than standing out front raising a ruckus just to hear their own barks. Pippi did her best work as a cow dog from behind the cattle, nudging a stubborn heifer into a trailer, or gently nipping at a yearling bull's hoof to encourage them through the working chute. Sure, she could have tried to be out front, leading the cattle to the new pasture by example, but she wouldn't have had many followers. She knew that stubborn cattle--like some stubborn people--respond best if they think they're in charge of their own destinies and never realize they're being led.

There are times, though, when leaders need to step out front and protect their followers. Pippi wasn't back there dawdling behind the herd. She was watchful that they stayed on target. So, if her cows were going the wrong way, or straying off into danger, she had no qualms about moving out front and getting their attention with a bark.

Effective leaders can tell the right time to hang back and let their team go along the path, and when to stand out front and protect them from straying.

Pippi the cow dog was an easy-going leader, and she knew that cattle will move along eventually, at their own pace, with minimal encouragement. She instinctively knew when to back off from the herd, and when to get right in there and motivate the stubborn cow blocking the way. If she needed to, she would change tactics, too. Sure, the herd's path may not have been straight and short. But ultimately every cow, calf and bull made their way to where they were supposed to be.

Good leaders have to allow their followers the freedom to get the job done at their own pace. Yet, they must be able to watch that the group stays on track and out of trouble. So, if that means changing leadership, motivational or communication tactics, they do it.

The most important lesson Pippi taught us, though, was sometimes work itself is the biggest joy and reward. She was never happier than when she was out with Dad working cattle and riding in the pickup. She took pleasure in the little things, like a scratch behind the ears, or a vanilla ice cream cone. She didn't have a multi-million dollar book deal, or plaques hanging on the walls of her doghouse, but she was happy just the same.

We all should be so lucky to find that sort of contentment in our own work.

Jennifer M. Latzke can be reached by phone at 620-227-1807, or by e-mail at jlatzke@hpj.com.



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