The Golden Retriever
A long time ago in some undergraduate psychology class I vaguely remember taking a personality survey designed to best match an animal to your personality characteristics. One look at the title above and you can guess what mine was. My qualities of dedication, focus, playfulness, and loyalty forever cemented my place as…well a dog apparently. In all seriousness though I should have realized these qualities for what they were at that time, a prediction of my future role as a clinician and a leader.
There is a reason golden retrievers are one of the preferred breeds as leader dogs for those with vision impairments or disabilities. This breed is caring when needed, but also committed and focused to accomplish a particular task and ensure safety. Golden retrievers are loyal beyond all else and exhibit a playful yet modest demeanor that cements them as a quiet leader. I possessed these similar qualities years ago and somehow have refined them over the years to carry over into my personal clinical and leadership style. How do you refine qualities similar to a leader dog and employ them in the world of physical therapy you ask? Well, let me try to explain.
Before I delve into this rabbit hole let me first say that this leadership style is by no means the best and is certainly not for everyone or every setting. This also is not intended to be a self-help guide; this is merely how I have evolved to think about leading over the last several years. One of the main reasons golden retrievers make good leader dogs is they listen. They patiently wait for a signal, noise, or action from their master to then quietly initiate a response. A quiet leader is quiet because they listen first. Listening to the verbal and non-verbal signals presented by others will enable you to understand their emotions, motivations, and fears. When people know they are being heard it helps diminish their stress reaction and introduce real communication.
Second, quiet leaders just like golden retrievers are genuine. A quiet leader believes in who they are and what they do. Confidence is equally important whether leading a person with a visual impairment across a busy street, or leading a department during a global pandemic. Any amount of hesitancy certainly will result in disaster, so the quiet leader calmly picks up the leash and their head and marches out. This does not mean you are always headed the right direction (even dogs get this wrong), but it means the people behind you will follow even if they are not sure because they trust you. This trust is not built solely on experience or skill, but on loyalty, focus, and dedication. I have spent a lot of time over the past few years NOT reading leadership books. Instead, I read books on vulnerability, late bloomers, and the power of introverts. These topics help me understand myself better as well as understand how to think the best of the patients and staff I work with. Knowing people and being intuitive help me motivate my patients and those I work with to get the best results.
Lastly, a quiet leader much like the golden retriever does not necessarily have to be quiet or silent. The quiet is not a reflection on sound but more so calm, simple, and restrained. When danger lies ahead, the golden retriever might let out a short but emphatic bark to warn of an incoming threat. When necessary, even a quiet leader will give succinct direction, or speak forcefully to best advocate for their cause. This action is only used though when imminent risk is present and immediate direction is needed. The rarity of utilizing your words in this way lends weight to them. When I bark, people generally listen because they know it must be important.
Well there you have it, my life as a leader dog. Ironic as it may seem, I really feel this is the best way to describe the style of quiet leadership. Even if you’re not officially in a leadership position, I can guarantee you that everyone is a leader to their patients. You are guiding them away from pain, towards recovery, strength, and independence. There are a lot of books on leadership, and I really could tell you I have not read that many of them. What I can ask you though is to think of people who you admire and follow, how do they inspire you? Now think of that golden retriever, who listens, is confident, calm, direct, and patient. I would follow that leader into a busy street, or a new project, or a global pandemic. Be the quiet leader that sets an even tone every day. Be a leader that listens first and waits patiently for a sign to act. Be the leader that is genuine and confident enough to be calm amidst chaos. Be the leader that is the role model for the ideal member of the group. Why not be a golden retriever?