Guide dogs and leadership

Leadership Lessons From Working Dog Teams

Arguably, the pandemic – and all of its aftermath – seems to have focused a spotlight on inclusion as well as technology.

I’ve experienced the changes firsthand as a person with a disability, partnered with a guide dog, doing my best to navigate the inclusion and technology revolutions. In any of my roles, all of my three wonderful but different dog partners have influenced and shaped my career and life beyond measure.

They’ve taught me lessons in leadership and in misadventure. Much like my experiences with my guide dogs, tech and inclusion don’t always play out in ideal ways. When things don’t go according to plan, my dogs have shown me how to work through the messiness and keep going.

Turning frustrations into resilience

I started my public service career as a Presidential Management Fellow, graduating from this prestigious program with my first guide dog, Langer. I traveled with Langer to the European Union as an American Marshall Memorial Fellow. I now serve with Bowie as Chair at the Maryland Commission on Civil Rights.

As an example of these dogs and their challenging natures, one of these rascals may purloin a bagel at the office on occasion – totally inapposite to textbook guide dog rules. I also recall this one occasion en route to my postgraduate program when Pilot (my second partner) and I navigated down the platform at Union Station to the escalator. Suddenly, Pilot jerked his head down to the ground snatching some half-eaten bagel that lay on the platform. I cleared his snoot, throwing the bagel to our side.

While every weird or even frustrating situation that I experience proves not for the faint of heart, there is something humanizing to work with a dog in the public eye. (Not that any of my dogs have ever purloined human delights from the office coffee cart, or so I tell the guide dog school.) Conversely, I know bias and discrimination, even from civil rights leaders.

An attorney at a hearing, which I once chaired at the Commission, displayed a photo on a screen with not so much as providing advance notice, nevertheless describing the photo. As another personal favorite example, I once attended a reception at the Maryland Bar Foundation where a former Attorney General of Maryland shared an elevator with me. As my memory serves, he blessed me for being in attendance. Yet it is this bumpy road in life that one must encounter to be formidable and resilient. Even with my frustrations while forging a stellar career as a person with a disability, I have matured in realizing that we have more in common than we do in differences.

Charting new paths

In as much as high activity equals a rich, diverse life, it also means engaging the hurly-burly of human interaction, which is not always inclusive to a blind person and his furry sidekick. I learned that so long ago as a Presidential Management Fellow. When I graduated from that prestigious program, I comprised the sole handler of a guide dog to navigate across the stage. The experience inspired me to advance an impactful career while creating opportunities for those who come behind.

I have worked on technology inclusion. To this end, I held public policy dialogues at the German Marshall Fund of the U.S. in 2014 and in 2019 across two different dogs: my second guide dog, Pilot, and his mentee, Bowie. Each of those dialogues related to technology inclusion of people with disabilities. To my disturbance, I recently was the sole scholar with a disability at an international conference related to the impact of emerging technologies on the legal field. As such, technology proves a constant part of my career journey.

Multitasking in a virtual world

Since the onset of the pandemic, my third guide dog, Bowie, probably snores from the front parlor while I swear at this virtual private network (VPN) connection. Many of you likely yell at your allegedly flawless laptop taken home how many months ago, uniting us in a common experience of poor VPN connections and incessant Zoom-based calls.

On the technology side of concerns, even I have learned to set up a Zoom call. While one should probably not drive a vehicle and speak via Zoom; one should not text and work simultaneously with a guide dog in public.

If the VPN is symbiotic with Zoom, then on any given day, you may indeed imagine seeing, or may actually see, Bowie running about with a football or a stuffed purple dinosaur hoping for a cameo in my virtual meeting.

What we do to leverage these momentous times for “we the people” and for the “public good” depends on each of us, including those of us who work with guide dogs on the public square. As such, I look forward to sharing my story with you, including the antics of my three dog partners.

Mr. Norman, a lawyer, emerging journalist and consensus-builder, received the Administrator’s Award at the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services in 2020 for his work on healthcare accessibility and quality policy related to people with disabilities. In November 2019,  Mr. Norman served as a Fellow at the invite-only Public Policy Conflict Resolution Fellowship. In 2015, he served as a Visiting Fellow at the non-partisan Robert J. Dole Institute for Politics. He established a multi-year, non-partisan symposium on animal law and policy, brokering regional or even national experts together. The dog or dogs of Mr. Norman are usually nearby chewing on a bone.

Photo by Martin Castro on Unsplash

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