At the first signs of trouble, the first steps you take are the most important steps you’ll take as a leader.
This is called “walking towards the barking dog”, and I learned many years ago that this is an instinct that’s vital for leaders to develop.
When confronted with an actual barking dog, the instinct is to move (or run) away quickly. Instead sometimes the best move is to walk firmly towards the barking dog. In many cases this will cause the aggressive dog to back down.
In my days as a church leader I once was informed by a trusted colleague that there was trouble brewing in one of our departments. Volunteers were abandoning the department, programs were falling apart and staff were miserable.
The “barking” was getting pretty loud.
Despite knowing that the situation called for my immediate engagement, I chose instead to busy myself with other tasks, convincing myself that the problem would wait until I could address them at a more convenient time.
You can guess what happened. By the time I chose to engage, things had spiraled out of control, leaving me with a problem many times worse than it was when it was first drawn to my attention.
Of course, I should have marched immediately into the fray. I should have walked towards the barking dog.
Leaders encounter barking dogs all the time.
- You become aware that the organization’s projections are starting to slide.
- You notice that a member of your team is becoming more withdrawn and less engaged.
- You can see that the team is drifting off mission, with lesser priorities starting to occupy more time and energy.
At the first signs of trouble, leaders must resist the temptation to turn away by remember these four barking dog principles:
1. No amount of avoidance will make the problem disappear,
2. Unaddressed problems tend to grow over time, not diminish,
3. Avoiding pressing problem weakens your leadership in the eyes of the team,
4. Tackling problems head-on builds leadership muscles that equip you to take on the next round of barking dogs.
Stop and listen. Do you hear any barking? Move boldly and purposefully towards the problem.
Those first steps are the most important steps you’ll take.