Leadership Lessons: From my dog

  • Published
  • By Command Chief Master Sgt. David Duncan
  • 319th Air Base Wing
Several weeks ago, the world became a lesser place when a valued member of the Duncan family went to run in fields eternal. Our faithful dog Rusty passed away at the age of 15, which would be 83 to a human. Just think of the leadership lessons one could learn if they sat and talked with or simply watched an 83-year old person go about their daily events.

In my nearly 30-year career, I have had the opportunity, as many of you have, to attend multiple seminars exploring leadership. I have attended all levels of Enlisted Professional Military Education, I even taught PME for nine years. I have read, researched and written countless papers on leadership throughout my career as I was completing my Masters degree in Organizational Management. Through all of this, I have come to realize many of the most valued leadership skills one needs to be successful can actually be learned from their dog.

Rusty The Wonder Dog, as we referred to him, started his life with us as a pound puppy. We picked him up at the Humane Society in Gulfport, Mississippi. He was two years old and very sick. We selected him anyway.

Rusty's life with us began with every kind of worm a dog could have. He was very sick and the cure for his situation was almost worse than the actual infliction itself. But he was a natural fighter and pushed through his weeks of treatment to get better like a champion. What he taught me was no matter how bad you have it, there are people around you that will help you, if you just give them the chance. Simply put, he wasn't about making his situation someone else's problem, but he accepted the help that was provided. I believe he paid us back in many ways and taught us several other lessons along the way.

Everyone reading this commentary has been the "new guy" in the unit or work center. As we grew into our positions on the team, we make mistakes and maybe even chew up a few things along the way. We had to learn about the rules and standards of the new environment. We had to also form those relationships that would take us successfully into the future as we became better than we were when we started the new job. Rusty taught me that patience really is the greatest virtue. We had to be patient with him as he healed, learned our rules, accepted our household standards and became a part of our family. He also taught me there are times when a family's standards might need to be relaxed at times to enable some learning to occur, or maybe revisited on the whole to determine if the standard even makes sense given the current environment.

The first time my wife brought a broom out to sweep the kitchen floor, Rusty couldn't get away from her fast enough. That told us a lot about what he had been through before making it to the Humane Society. So we had a trust issue in the Duncan house. When dealing with the Russians on arms control issues, President Reagan famously said, "Trust, but verify". It took Rusty a long time to get over the fear of brooms and form trust in us to not harm him in a situation that formerly was "dangerous" to him. I found it funny that even after we got him to a place where he wouldn't leave the room when the broom came out, he always looked around to determine escape routes, just in case. The lesson he taught me there was even when you trust someone to do their job, a good leader will still ensure the job gets done properly and that the organization has a successful way out, should things go wrong.

Starting that day in Gulfport, my wife had a constant shadow for the rest of Rusty's life. I have never seen such a strong example of loyalty. We would take Rusty for a walk and he would see something we wouldn't or couldn't and would change the way he was walking or begin a low, quiet growl or whine to alert us. Any time I would wrestle with my wife or the kids, he would join in and I was always the target of his "affection" in protecting the family. When we would leave the house and come home, he was always the first "person" to come and welcome us back into the folds of the household (even if we just went outside to get the mail or paper). He taught me that loyalty to individuals and the family is quite simply something that makes the organization work better. One might argue that loyalty from the lowest member of the team is essential, but I would argue that any plans we ever made as a family included a discussion of "what about Rusty?" As a result of Rusty being in our lives, our two sons learned about loyalty to those in subordinate positions as well. Although I don't think Rusty was the lowest member of our team...that would be Roger our cat, but that is for another commentary.

Another strong lesson taught to me by Rusty the Wonder Dog was that of flexibility. I am not referring to the many positions he would contort his body into when sleeping; man, he could make a nap look good. Rather, I am referring to his ability to just be with the family when things were going on. He was a willing participant in hundreds of family events such as birthdays, holidays, anniversaries, moves, etc. I am not sure what any of Rusty's daily to-do lists ever looked like. But with the exception of getting him into the bathtub, he was always ready to do whatever we asked of him. When I first became an NCO, I quickly learned just how unsuccessful one would be if they weren't flexible. I start everyday with a calendar my assistant prints off for me. He and I often joke about comparing the daily calendar at the end of the day with the one I started the day with...very seldom the same. As leaders, we simply need to be flexible. That knock on the door just might be opportunity. How many times have each of us foregone the benefits of serendipitous opportunities because they weren't listed on our daily do-do list?

Finally, the last and perhaps biggest leadership lesson my dog Rusty taught me was that of LOVE. That dog just flat out loved life. He knew his job and did it well.  He loved those around him and appreciated what they brought to the fight each day. I think he had high expectations of me, but allowed me to be human at the same time. Even if my 100 percent today was merely 60 percent of yesterday's efforts, he allowed me to be human. Any organization is made up of its people; the Air Force is no different. If you don't love your job or the people who are around you, time to make a change. Find ways to make the job more enriching to you. The number one job of a leader is to know their people. Take the time to sit and talk with the people around you. Find out what makes them tick. Once you know that, you are in a better place to show them how they fit into the mission and how mission needs actually help them achieve their goals. After all, the definition of leadership is, "the art of influencing others to complete the mission". It is not a matter of making your people do the job, rather it is about showing them how they fit in and why their efforts are of benefit to them and the team. To me, this is a pure example of a leader loving their people.

So there you have it, the things about leadership my dog taught me. I'm sure there are many other little lessons along the way I was able to apply to my personal leadership style. It has only been several weeks since Rusty left us, but he will be missed for many years to come, I'm sure.

As I come to the end of my 30-years in the Air Force, I am becoming ever more keenly aware of transitions we all go through. For the last six months, I have been counting the number of "lasts" I am going through. But what I have come to realize is, no matter what transition one is going through, they are not going through it alone. Be it with your wingman or your dog, you will always have someone by your side as a member of the Air Force. Embrace those relationships and take the many lessons you learn along the way and become a great leader for your people and our Air Force.