Leader of the Pack: A Snake, A Dog, and a Good Decision

A lot of life’s lessons have come from my dogs, especially the pack of Siberian Huskies that shared my life for a while. Boy, did they teach me a lot. Making a good decision quickly was at the top of the list.
As a breed, Huskies are smart, loyal, independent decision makers. They can sense trouble before a human can. If you’re running a sled team, you want your dogs to refuse commands in dangerous situations. It can save their lives–and yours.

One dim, damp, winter afternoon Reese, my alpha husky, was outside on his regular tour of the backyard. I was inside with the other dogs when we heard a high-pitched bark. Reese was calling out the cavalry. We ran to the back door. I let the dogs out and peered through the mist. 

A very large snake was curled in the dead leaves, giving Reese the stink-eye.

Snake vs. Dog

Gopher Snake
The Enemy

Rattlesnakes and gopher snakes are common where I live. As a rule, I don’t mind them. They keep the local rodent population in check. They eat; I save money on rat traps and don’t have to dispose of the deceased. Although rattlers and gopher snakes look alike, there’s one key difference: gopher snakes are not poisonous. On a bright, sunny day the differences between the two are clear. Not so much on this particularly gloomy Sunday.

If you’ve never seen a pack of dogs hunt, it’s a wonder. Each dog has a role. One stations himself at the prey’s head while the rest of the pack circle and distract. Reese took up a position confronting the enemy. The others ran in tight circles around them, snarling and snapping.
I didn’t want to have to drag a snake-bitten, hysterical Husky to the emergency vet.

Battle On

I called them to heel. The backup unit returned immediately, looking somewhat relieved. This was not their idea. Warm, dry beds required their immediate attention. But Reese persisted, brave and conscientious if a bit nervous now that he was flying solo. He paused to acknowledge my call; however, this was an imminent threat to his pack. He was going to take care of the intruder come hell or high water.
The snake was none too pleased. It lashed out to strike my resolute Husky. Reese hopped back a couple of feet but immediately leaped forward again with a snarl. The snake lunged a second time. I continued to call Reese. I was getting more worried about the outcome of this little tete-a-tete. Reese was torn. He recognized the danger he was in but didn’t want to fail. This was his backyard and the uninvited guest must be dealt with. It was all on his shoulders.
He paused to think things through.
You could almost see a light bulb go off over his head. He launched one last attack. The snake tucked itself down into a defensive curl. Firmly planting himself, Reese lifted a rear leg and aimed a stream of urine at the snake’s head. It hit the target dead on.
I imagined explaining the snake bite to the emergency vet.

Good Decision

Reese the Red Husky
Time for a Nap

The snake shook his head in disgust and beat a hasty retreat, never to be seen again. Reese turned and bounded into the house with his tail curled high, very proud of himself. Job done, he paused just long enough to collect praise from me then promptly took a nap.

Sometimes it’s better to ask for forgiveness.

In the Real World: Talk to Stakeholders

Our local hospital has a national reputation as a high-quality institution. If you know anything about healthcare, you understand how valuable that is. High patient satisfaction ratings mean more federal (and sometimes state) dollars. Happier patient stakeholders mean more referrals and more revenue. In healthcare, quality isn’t just a buzzword.
But getting into the hospital is like gaining access to Fort Knox. I understand the need for security, but it adds a good 10 minutes to a visit. The main lobby is always crowded and confused; if you go in that way, bring your patience too.

The Problem

Patient Parking SignMy husband requires a monthly medical treatment. We park at a back door, in a small lot designed to serve out-patients who need access to the few departments nearby. Otherwise, it’s a long, long walk from the bustle of the main lobby. It’s also a convenient shortcut for vendors servicing medical equipment
Getting in and out is quick and easy and the security guards are great: they get to know you and greet you with a smile. I don’t know how they stay so cheerful, because there is no shelter from the elements. Even in good weather, strong winds blow around a nearby corner. It gets brutally hot in the summer, miserably damp and cold in the winter. The equipment they need to look up names and print ID tags never works—it wasn’t designed to be used outside.
We asked about the situation as one guard wrote out our nametags by hand on a “Hello My Name Is” label. The hospital refused to invest any money in an adequate guard station. It was only a back door and not as busy as the main lobby. Why bother?
Unfortunately, bad people recognized an opportunity. They began to sneak in. The staff had problems with unwanted guests trying to steal drugs and equipment, or harass patients. It was getting out of hand.

The Solution Worked—Until It Didn’t

Russian guardsHospital security implemented a solution. They installed a camera and intercom system. To get in, you buzzed the security office. They examined you through the camera, asked you to hold up your ID, and then let you in or sent you around to the main lobby. But the hospital was unwilling to invest in a good camera and visitors were unprotected from the elements. Most of the time the guard who answered the call couldn’t clearly see visitor’s faces, much less read the proffered ID card. Many were sent to the madhouse in the main lobby.
A lot of the patients who use that door are in poor health. Walking around the building is difficult, even if you’re agile. Having to go to the front strained parking attendants and volunteers, held up medical procedures, delayed equipment repairs, reduced the number of patients the departments could treat in a day, and, as a result, reduced revenue while increasing costs. Worse, stakeholders were irritated to the point of irrationality. It risked impacting the patient satisfaction scores.
That got everyone’s attention.

Who Needs Stakeholders?

vault lockFrustrated by all the complaints, hospital security went for the cheap-and-easy solution: lock the back door. Grant access only to staff with access badges.  That was it, problem solved. 
Oh, and don’t tell anyone that’s what you’re doing. 
You can see where this is going.

Well, That Didn’t Work Either

Not only did it make things even worse, it caused a number of unforeseen problems. The hospital added temporary staff to answer the increased volume of complaints. Because many patients couldn’t walk from the main lobby to the back of the hospital, more volunteers were needed to push them in wheelchairs. But the volunteers didn’t return the wheelchairs when they were done, so the hospital had to purchase more wheelchairs—and find more people to return the wheelchairs to the main lobby.  Meanwhile, the wheelchairs were starting to pile up in corridors and waiting areas. (I thought the hospital looked like the set of “Dr. Who.”)
Vendors were delayed further in getting to their repair appointments. Expensive medical equipment sat unused—and not generating revenue—even longer than before. To keep patient satisfaction scores up, a small nation’s budget in Starbuck’s gift cards were sent out acknowledging the inconvenience and thanking everyone for their patience
Staff schedules were upended because patients and vendors were delayed. Not only did that cost the hospital more money in overtime, it also meant staff was upset. To their credit, they didn’t take it out on patients, though managers sure got an earful.

The Point Is…

Talk to your stakeholders. Start by investigating the following questions for yourself, then check your understanding with your stakeholders.
  • What problem are you really solving? People were sneaking into the hospital through a back door. The real problem: Security guards weren’t equipped to work effectively. (A little root cause analysis would have sussed this out.)
  • Why does the problem need solving? Bad people were trying to gain access to drugs, equipment, and patients. Yup, that’s a good reason to fix the problem!
  • Who is impacted by the problem? Bad people, sure; but also security guards, out-patients, volunteers, parking attendants, staff, and vendors—stakeholders no one thought about.
  • How would your stakeholders solve the problem? Locking the back door seemed like the simplest, easiest solution. Who doesn’t love simple and easy?
A better solution: Invest in a weatherproof station and equipment to protect the guards, help them do their jobs, and make them more comfortable. Yes, it cost money in the short run. But the solutions that were implemented turned out to have a much larger impact on costs, revenues, quality and customer satisfaction.
  • How will you measure results? Clear indicators catch problems in the making. In this case, the solution eliminated security problems at the back door and meant the guards could be reallocated elsewhere. (Yay! Problem solved!) But the unintended consequences were more costly by far–and weren’t uncovered until much later. Oh, and in all the confusion, more bad people were getting past the guards at the main lobby. (Boo! Hiss!)
A final note: By the end of the first week, the back door was reopened and smiling guards were once again greeting us. It turns out cranky out-patients are a force to be reckoned with.

In the Real World: Agree On How to Organize Things

I love my honey, I really do. He’s a fabulous organizer; without him, our home would look considerably messier than it does. (He and I disagree: his “mess” is my “comfortable.” Right there we have a problem: we lack a shared vocabulary. More on that in another post.) When he’s bored, he’ll re-organize the garage, the bookcases, the closets and the kitchen. He’s a dream that way.  Mostly I appreciate his considerable efforts to bring order to our lives. He doesn’t organize things like I do—he’s an engineer, for one thing. He takes any mess personally. But one man’s entropy is another woman’s pile, or stash, or clothes closet. Or kitchen.

Don’t Touch My Toolbox

ToolboxWe’ve already had the “don’t touch my toolbox” conversation.  I could find things in my toolbox, but he couldn’t. We agreed that was his domain, so he took it over. I don’t mind; toolboxes aren’t all that big and his system is obvious if counter-intuitive to me. He applied the same rigorous logic to the junk drawer in the kitchen. It is now organized to within an inch of its life and has been renamed the “utility drawer.” I get reprimanded if I slip and call it the “junk drawer.”  I can’t find anything in it but he’s usually around to ask, so I live with it. Then he oh-so-helpfully organized another of my toolboxes, the drawer of cooking utensils under the range top.  I was making pancakes one morning, happily ignorant that the organizational elf had paid a visit when I wasn’t looking. Time to flip the pancakes. The spatula was not where it should be. Now mind you, I have several specialized spatulas: one for pancakes and hamburgers, one for fish, one for eggs. Different shapes and sizes, slotted or not, each specific to its purpose. I’d have settled for any spatula at that point—the pancakes were starting to burn. Couldn’t find any of them. Shouted for the engineer, who was reorganizing his closet again. Somewhat offended, he showed me his new system. This, he proclaimed, would make my life easier. He opened another drawer entirely. Et violá! There were my missing spatulas—and everything else I hadn’t thought to look for—organized by material (wood, plastic/silicon, metal), color and size.

No, Really. Don’t Touch My Toolbox

He ate burnt pancakes for breakfast and we had our second “don’t touch my toolbox” conversation. I tried to explain wood/plastic/metal + color is not how I look for tools. I failed. (it wasn’t logical. Thank you, Mr. Spock.) I got his attention when I said he’d be eating a lot more burned meals if he messed with my tools. I thought we’d gotten that resolved until I decided to make a stew that called for fennel. I could have sworn I had fennel, but I didn’t see it in the spice drawer. I bought a bottle and opened the spice drawer to put it away. That’s when I noticed things looked suspicious: bottles, boxes, and cans were organized by material (glass, metal, plastic), color and size. The organizational elf had struck again. As I reorganized, I realized we had four bottles of fennel, three of cinnamon, no salt (turns out that was stashed in another cabinet across the kitchen), no cumin (a staple in my kitchen), and a bottle of mace I thought I’d thrown out years ago.

The Point Is…

Build a common vocabulary.

  • Get stakeholders involved. Understand their perspective. Cook in their kitchen—understand why the spatulas are where they are and the spices organized the way they are. And know that every stakeholder, like every cook, is different.
  • Clarify vocabulary. Get definitions. These will often conflict. My microplane is my honey’s rasp; my French rolling pin is his wooden peg. Have you ever asked Sales, Marketing, Operations, Customer Service, Accounting, and HR to define a customer? It’s an interesting conversation.
  • Document what you learn. Build a dictionary if you need to. Agree to disagree. Note differences and conflicts. Publish/share it across your project.

Meanwhile, I’m looking for more recipes to use up the fennel and cinnamon.

The Writer’s ToolKit

Like any maker, every writer needs a good toolkit. Professional writers, like carpenters or iron workers, have a basic set of reliable tools they use every day. I’m sharing some of my favorites with you here. Most of them are free or have a perfectly usable freemium model, with one exception.

Sticky Notes

That exception is my favorite all-purpose tool, the sticky note. I love these things. They’re great for capturing ideas, getting organized, making notes in books, jotting down an important bit of information (like a password…just kidding), and tracking progress on a kanban board. Their uses are endless. You can color code or not, depending on what you’re doing. They’re inexpensive and don’t require special training to use.

For some ideas on the many ways to use sticky notes, see this post by my colleague Shawn Greene.


Hands-down,  Evernote is my favorite note taking, idea capturing, judgement-free writing app. It’s available across platforms; there are versions for Mac OS X, IOS, Windows and Android. Content syncs seamlessly in the cloud so you can start something on your smart phone and flesh it out on your laptop or tablet. It has a few more features than a simple note-taking tool but it’s a whole lot easier to use than Microsoft Word. The free version is robust enough for most folks, though you may prefer to buy a subscription if you want to share your work with a team. I use it to rough out content outlines, store document templates, and even develop drafts of my work.

To polish my work, I rely on two grammar checking tools: Hemingway and Grammarly. Both have wonderful free versions.


Hemingway App

The Hemingway app isn’t for everyone. It’s all about terse, concise writing, a la Earnest Hemingway. If that’s not your style, you may not want to bother with it. I like it when I’m trying to tighten up my writing and add more punch. Hemingway works in two modes: Write lets you compose on a blank screen. Edit mode checks spelling, sentence structure and word usage, among other things. It will give you a reading level score, which can be very useful when you’re targeting a specific audience. You can purchase a version of Hemingway that works offline and lets you save your work. I spent the money–it’s inexpensive and I do a lot of writing in coffee shops with unreliable internet access.


You may find Grammarly more useful than Hemingway. The free version is pretty powerful. It includes a browser plug-in that can check your spelling and grammar in text boxes on websites. It’s a handy feature when you’re filling out a form and don’t want to sound like an idiot. The grammar check is basic but useful: it catches inconsistent voice (singular vs. plural), punctuation and other simple problems. The subscription version does a more sophisticated analysis. I have not tried that version yet, but I may be letting my professional pride get in the way.


Don’t Forget Toolkit Basics

Finally, don’t forget the writer’s oldest friends and toolkit basics, a dictionary and a thesaurusOnline versions are free and convenient–though there’s something to be said for leafing through a print dictionary. 

Leader of the Pack: Lessons in Life and Leadership from my Dogs

I’ve read what seems like a bazillion books on how to be a leader.

I bet you have, too.

Most of them are awful, a few are OK, but none has rung my chimes. Yet I’ve been consistently told I’m a good leader. So where did I pick up these skills?

Other than the trite, “treat people the way you’d like to be treated,” the only idea I can come up with is a life lived with dogs. Seriously.

A Life With Dogs

I grew up in a big house in the country. My parents had a soft spot for any dog that needed a home, and the word got out. Back then, we were the crazy people who lived up on the hill with all the dogs, not a family engaged in rescuing strays. The dogs were an integral part of the family: protectors, varmint-removers, a great alarm system, snugglers on a cold night. 

Definitely NOT a leader

Let me clarify: I’m not talking about two or three cute little moppets. I mean a pack of 12-15 large Dalmatians. You know, those big white dogs with black spots that Disney made a few movies about. They run about 60-75 pounds, and they can be formidable protectors. They need a lot of exercise and make great companions for country kids looking for adventure.

When I was very little, our alpha female took a strawberry ice cream cone away from me.

I cried about it to my father but got no sympathy. He told me I needed to be the alpha. So the lessons started. The alpha female was deaf, and all commands had to be issued using both words and hand signals. 

Pretty soon I was giving commands to these large dogs–and they were obeying. 

Getting Feedback–Whether You Want It or Not

Decades later, I flew home for my mother’s memorial service. In the interim, I’d built businesses, led teams, learned to be a good project manager and, eventually, a leader.

After the service, a tiny, elderly woman approached me with great determination. Peering up at me, she shook a finger in my face and claimed everyone in town thought my mother was crazy. And that it was creepy to see a little girl have a pack of dogs do exactly what she wanted without having to say anything.

Lessons for a Leader

What did I take away from this experience?

  1. People remember leaders–even when they’re little kids in charge of a bunch of big dogs.
  2. You can learn a lot from dogs.

Stay tuned for more in this series, Leader of the Pack.