The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

July 12, 2010

ZACHARY HUBBARD | Leadership lessons from a cat

Zachary Hubbard

— Shortly after my wife and I purchased a house in Menoher Heights, we became acquainted with the neighborhood’s most distinguished resident. Monty, a big tomcat in the prime of life, lives next door.

As with most mature, male felines, Monty’s ample belly swings slightly to and fro as he struts confidently around his personal territory on the ridge. Unrestricted by manmade boundaries, he frequents our yard and pretty much anywhere else he desires.

After observing Monty for several years, it occurred to me he could teach lessons in leadership. Monty displays many desirable traits of a good leader. Developing such traits will help anyone become a better leader, whether at home or at work.

I speak of leadership, not management. Many good managers are terrible leaders.

Managers keep things in order and make sure policies and procedures are followed.

Leaders need these skills, but they also must give of themselves. By doing so, they can expect the very best from those they lead.

Good leaders lead by example, like the infantry motto, “follow me.” When one leads by example and always tries to do the right thing, those being led learn by observation. So here are seven leadership lessons one can learn by observing a cat:

* Develop self-confidence. Monty knows who he is. He has the self-confidence and poise typical of big tomcats. He refines his skills through constant practice. From his deportment, one senses that Monty is good and knows it. Leaders lacking self-confidence tend to avoid making important decisions. They often delay their decisions until the last minute, creating frustration and turmoil. A good leader does not fear decision-making. If a decision proves to be bad, the leader accepts responsibility and tries to make things right. He can do that easily because he never doubts his own abilities. This is because he understands his personal strengths and weaknesses. He relies on his strengths, while diligently working to overcome his weaknesses.

* Remain unshakeable. Monty never gets excited, even though he does hiss occasionally when I get too close to him. Even after hissing he will turn slowly and walk calmly away. The ability to remain calm and retain one’s composure is important for leaders. When the going gets tough, people don’t want to see their leader panic or have an angry outburst. Having a cool-headed leader in the midst of a crisis is calming and reassuring. It instills confidence in those being led.

* Always respect others. Even though we’ve known each other for several years, Monty always maintains a professional distance. He will allow me to approach within a foot or two, but he has never let me touch him and I respect that. Respect is important in the home and workplace. Too many parents today want to be their children’s friend instead of their parents. Good parenting requires establishing clear senior-subordinate relationships. The same applies in business. The boss can’t be everybody’s friend without losing a degree of effectiveness. With customers, even ones you have known for a long time, it is wise to refrain from becoming too familiar. Familiarity breeds contempt, so display professional respect at all times.

* Be consistent. What separates good amateur golfers from professionals is that the pros consistently swing their clubs the same way and hit the balls where they want them to go. Consistency in leadership, whether in the home or workplace, makes those led confident in their leader and creates stability. A key element of consistent leadership is setting rules and enforcing them fairly and uniformly. Accepting a behavior in one person, while rejecting the same behavior in another, creates confusion and resentment. Set and enforce rules. Chaos fills the vacuum where no rules exist.

* Plan before you act. Monty makes a plan and sticks to it. His plan is simple, but effective, something akin to, “I’m going to sit by this hole and catch a chipmunk, even if it takes all day.” Good planning is an essential element of good leadership. The Roman philosopher Seneca said, “No wind is favorable if you do not know to which port you are steering.” A leader who doesn’t plan is like a ship without a sail tossed helplessly about by the waves. Some people float through life without ever really heading anywhere. Those who plan have goals and objectives that add focus to their being and help them achieve success.

* Learn patience. Monty will wait for hours by a chipmunk hole. More often than not, his patience pays off. Americans today lack patience, especially the younger generation. “I want it yesterday,” is their creed. This leads to stressed lives, driven by urgency. They crave fast cars, fast Internet connections, and fast computers. One of my favorite sayings is, “if you want it bad, you get it bad.” Roughly translated, it means good results usually take some time. Good leaders know how to slow down the pace, setting aside time for learning, thinking and planning. All are essential for success.

* Never lose hope. Even on the rare occasions when the hunt fails, Monty always comes back and tries again with great enthusiasm and determination. Good leaders realize occasional failures are unavoidable and they look toward a bright future. When failures occur, good leaders work through them, learn from them and try, try again. The Apostle Paul says in Romans, perseverance produces character and character produces hope. In I Corinthians he describes hope as one of the essential elements needed to fuel human existence.

I called the White House switchboard two weeks ago and suggested they invite Monty to live on the grounds there for a few months, sort of a visiting leadership consultant. The lady who answered said she’d check into it and get back to me. I’m still waiting for a call. Maybe that oil spill thing is keeping her boss busy.

Zachary Hubbard is a freelance writer residing in Upper Yoder Township. He is a member of The Tribune-Democrat Reader Advisory Committee.