The Unstable Pack Leader

Amy Wallace of the NY Times just offered up a rambling, poetic tribute to Cesar Millan, better known as the “Dog Whisperer,” for the NY Times business section.  Millan has an extraordinary personal story.  He was a poor kid from rural Mexico who crossed the border illegally and now presides over a dog-themed media empire that grosses annual revenues in the “mid seven figures.”  He counts Oprah and Michael Eisner among his clients.  He wants a plane.  For the dogs, of course.  Flying cargo is degrading.

Millan is in the “dog rehabilitation business.”  Or as he likes to clarify, he rehabilitates dogs and trains people.  He’s brought in to correct canine mischief, but to get there he has to teach humans how to become better leaders of their dogs.  The dogs have typically taken over the household, and he shows his clients how to reclaim and maintain their pack leader status.  The change is often instantaneous, sometimes as soon as Millan walks in the door.  This makes for great television, which is why 11 million people tune in to watch his show every week.

An uncomfortable amount of his advice is relevant to leading people, too.  According to Millan, dogs thrive with generous amounts of exercise, discipline and affection.  They love to be led, and are less anxious and more productive when someone else is clearly in charge.  They have an overwhelming preference for pack leaders who bring “calm, assertive energy” to the task.  (Millan’s worldview gave me a new lens on the showdown between No Drama Obama and John "The Maverick" McCain.  Senator McCain has many strengths, but “calm, assertive energy” is not among them.)

What doesn't translate from dogs to people?  According to Millan, dogs “won’t be around unstable energy. That’s how much integrity they have.”  One of Cesar’s favorite observations, in fact, is that human beings are the only animals that will follow unstable pack leaders.  That’s how much integrity we lack is the not-so-subtle implication.

I agree with the observation, but I read it a bit differently.  I think we'll tolerate instability in our leaders not because we lack integrity on a mass scale, but because we're so hungry for leadership, even hungrier than our four-legged friends.  Our progress as individuals and organizations and nations is so dependent on it, in fact, that we'll override our basic instincts and follow people who aren't really up for the task.  Close enough, we seem to conclude, with sometimes devastating consequences.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009