The Path Ahead Animal Shelter Consulting

The official blog of The Path Ahead Animal Shelter Consulting

Infrastructure building, Lifesaving programs, Management team support

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Shadow of the leader

The "shadow of the leader" is a term often used in the corporate world to describe the influence that a director, manager, or other person in a position of power has over staff and over the organization's culture. This concept, like many others, has been ignored by the animal sheltering industry because, by and large, we don't see our agencies as businesses. This is a terrible mistake, because of course they are businesses and should be run as such ... that is, if we want them to be successful.

Walk into any animal shelter and observe the behavior of staff. What is your first impression? Is the office neat and tidy, are you promptly and courteously greeted, are staff quietly working? Is the office a mess, are you ignored while staff loudly complain about a previous customer, does no one seem to be working? While good practices in hiring and training can go a long way, it is not a coincidence when a group of staff, however large, all start to take on the same characteristics in their behavior at work. Why is this? Because the leader models this behavior, allows/encourages this behavior, or shows other behaviors that cause this reaction.

Leaders, what kind of shadow do you cast?

Do you instantly respond to any ping on your mobile phone, even when people are talking to you? This teaches staff a) that it's okay to not listen to others, b) that it's okay to be attached to your phone, even in front of customers, and c) that what they have to say is not important. When you really look at it, even seemingly small actions like this can cast a long shadow. Staff who don't feel heard will lose productivity, gossip, and even reach out to higher-ups or to the public if they feel their concerns are not addressed.

Do you work late every night, frantically trying to get just one more thing done? Your staff will, too, at the expense of their personal health and life. This is a dangerous practice to allow because, as a manager, you are probably on salary, but most workers are paid hourly, which means they are either working overtime or punching out and continuing to work on their own time. In addition to causing burnout, you could be in violation of labor laws.

Do you take animals home, overburdening yourself with nursing kittens, puppies, or "just one more" special needs animal? Yep, your staff will do it, too. You may wonder how this can be a bad thing, as our goal is to save as many animals as possible, right? No, our goal is to draw clear boundaries between work and personal life for ourselves and for our staff so that we can continue to do our lifesaving work for years to come. As I wrote about in a previous post, burnout is huge in this industry, with devastating results like depression, substance abuse, and even suicide.

An incompetent or insecure leader will cast the longest shadow. Controlling and fear-based leadership will ripple throughout the organization, creating a culture of low morale and productivity with little growth. Laissez-faire leadership will create a culture of bully rule, where the stronger personalities among staff will make decisions based on what they personally want, forcing other, weaker, personalities to comply.

On the other hand, a good leader will cast a short shadow. Staff will follow that person because they want to, because they feel confidence in the leader's ability and comfort in communicating. Rather than becoming clones of the leader, they will take the opportunity to learn and grow within the bounds of the organization's mission, thus helping them down the path to success.