Leadership Library Review: Dare to Lead: Daring Greatly and Rising Strong at Work

February 2019

Dare to Lead: Daring Greatly and Rising Strong at Work by Brene Brown (Random House, 2018)

What are the big take-aways?

Brown’s Dare to Leadbuilds on her extraordinary professional expertise studying vulnerability, shame, courage and empathy in order to conduct research – including 150 global C-suite leaders and collections of data from her various business projects – on what it takes to be a “daring leader.”  In a two-page spread (pp. 76-77) Brown identifies sixteen characteristics of Armored Leadership versus Daring Leadership (e.g., the first one listed: “Driving perfectionism and fostering fear of failure” versus “Modeling and encouraging healthy striving, empathy and self-compassion”).

Why do I like it?

I like the book’s focus on how a “daring leader” must have the courage to be vulnerable and take risks (especially in the areas of communication, integrity and accountability); to create conditions that foster the growth of other leaders; and to develop the spaciousness to listen for and act upon one’s own wisdom.  On page 271, Brown writes:

If you asked me to boil down everything I’ve learned from this research, I      would tell you these three things:

  1. The level of collective courage in an organization is the absolute best predictor of that organization’s ability to be successful in terms of its culture, to develop leaders, and to meet its mission.
  2. The greatest challenge in developing brave leaders is helping them acknowledge and answer their personal call to courage. […]
  3. We fail the minute we let someone else define success for us. […]

One of my interpretations of what Brown discovers is that a certain minimum degree of capacity for complexity (known in adult development theory by terms such as self-authoring or self-determining) in leaders is necessary for organizations to thrive amidst the crushing pace of change that prevails in today’s global dynamics.

In what situations would this be useful?

The heart of Dare to Leadis also the largest part of the book, entitled “Rumbling with Vulnerability.”  This section has segment headings like “The Call to Courage,” “Shame and Empathy,” and “Curiosity and Grounded Confidence.”  If any of the key words in those headings tickles, frightens, disgusts, intrigues or triggers you, then I suspect this book would be a useful companion on your leadership journey!

What other resources might “pair” well with it?

The book I happened to review last month, The 15 Commitments of Conscious Leadership, would be a nice pairing in the sense that – to my mind – Brown’s 16 traits of “daring leaders” resonate with the 15 commitments.  They also echo the definitions of creative competencies and reactive tendencies in Bob Anderson’s Mastering Leadership, which is the case he makes for the Leadership Circle Profile (a 360-degree assessment of which Anderson is an architect).  The Leadership Circle Profile intentionally incorporates Robert Kegan’s adult development theory as described in this white paper, also by Anderson.

Note: In my opinion, if you read Dare to Lead, you can skip two of Brene Brown’s previous volumes, Daring Greatlyand Rising Strong.  A powerful discussion of another of Brown’s books that has provocative implications for leadership, Braving the Wilderness, unfolds in this interview of Brown by Krista Tippett for “On Being.”

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Leadership Library Review: The 15 Commitments of Conscious Leadership

January 2019

The 15 Commitments of Conscious Leadership by Jim Dethmer, Diana Chapman and Kaley Warner Klemp (Chapman, Dethmer & Klemp, 2014)

What are the big take-aways?

The authors posit that there are two “locations” of leadership consciousness: above the line (open, curious and committed to learning) and below the line (closed, defensive and committed to being right).  “As a regular practice,” write the authors on page 43, “conscious leaders notice when they are below the line and choose to shift to above the line.”

Leaders do this by consistently checking in on their “Way of Leading”: To Me, By Me, Through Me and As Me.  In the chapter “Leading from Above the Line,” the authors are clear that these Ways of Leading are four ever-changing states of being, not successive or cumulative developmental stages, and that it is possible to toggle among them – particularly To Me, By Me, Through Me (because As Me is a rarer state of unity/oneness, interconnectedness and peace) – in short periods of time, like hours or minutes. The authors argue that the most key, common and needed shift in a leader, a team, an organization, or even the world at any given moment is the Way-of-Leading shift from To Me (a victim posture) to By Me (a creator posture). Awareness of the line is “conscious leadership,” which the 15 commitments further define and support.

Why do I like it?

I like that “Taking Radical Responsibility,” along with “Learning Through Curiosity,” is a foundational commitment of conscious leadership.  (The other thirteen can be found here.)  Although conscious leadership is not an adult development framework like Susanne Cook-Greuter’s or Robert Kegan’s – and it may share more similarities to growth mindset research than to any theory of psychological development – in my view the authors’ stance regarding why conscious leadership is so effective hinges upon an ability to take the kind of responsibility for one’s learning and leading that might also be described as self-determining.  (In other words, I wonder whether a leader who is very mindful of the line, skillfully interrupts inevitable drifts below the line, and whose Way of Leading is at least in the By Me state most of the time, might correspond to certain stages of adult development?  Just a question to play with…)

In what situations would this be useful? 

This book would be probably most useful to you if the concept of conscious leadership intrigues you, and/or resonates with what you’re currently experiencing (e.g., something is impeding your effectiveness, you’re not sure what it is, and you’re truly open to finding out).  It could also be a helpful resource if you don’t “get” the concept of conscious leadership as I attempted to outline it above, but nonetheless know in your heart that you’re ready to do whatever it takes to bring more flexibility, authenticity, and ease to your leadership – as well as abundance to your organization – and could benefit from a coherent structure to help you effectuate those changes. The book makes these complex ideas seem quite straightforward.  For just one example, the authors ask on page 52, “What if there is no way the world should be and no way the world shouldn’t be?”  They go on to explain (page 53):

[T]he first step in taking responsibility is to shift from believing that the world should be a particular way to believing that the world just shows up. Second, we need to shift from rigidity, closed-mindedness, and self-righteousness to curiosity, learning, and wonder (which naturally occurs once our beliefs change).  All drama in leadership and life is caused by the need to be right.  Letting go of that need is a radical shift all great leaders make.

What other resources might “pair” well with it?

For an excellent three-and-a-half-minute graphical depiction of the authors’ “above the line and below the line” idea, see this video on YouTube.  For an astute summary of Carol Dweck’s book Mindset, on the neuroscience of transforming a fixed mindset into a growth mindset, see this Brain Pickings blog post by Maria Popova.

There are also several books and articles I’ve reviewed in the Leadership Library that would pair well with The 15 Commitments of Conscious Leadership.  A dense but flabbergasting argument for love, oneness, connection and abundance as the nature of the universe is made by Joseph Jaworski in Source: The Inner Path of Knowledge Creation.  For more on the “business case” for love, see Bob Anderson’s Mastering Leadership, and consider taking The Leadership Circle Profile self-assessment or ideally the 360-degree assessment, of which Anderson is an architect.  The Leadership Circle Profile – which also draws a significant line (between reactive tendencies below, and creative competencies above) – intentionally incorporates Robert Kegan’s adult development theory as described in this white paper, also by Anderson.

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Leadership Library Review: The Empathy Effect

December 2018

The Empathy Effect by Helen Riess, MD (Sounds True, 2018)

What are the big take-aways?

In this comprehensive, scientific and complex yet very accessible study of empathy, Riess discusses why this form of emotional connection is critical to human survival. Empathy is both innate and can be learned and cultivated, for which Riess offers the E.M.P.A.T.H.Y. model (Eye contact, Muscles of facial expression, Posture, Affect, Tone, Hearing the whole person, and Your response).  There is an entire chapter devoted to “Leadership and the Politics of Empathy,” which is the focus of this Leadership Library Review.

The leadership take-away (p. 148):

We often cite intelligence, instincts, and expertise when describing someone we consider to be a great leader, but great leaders are exquisitely attuned to others’ emotions and are experts at regulating their own.  CEOs and executives are often lauded for their fierce tenacity and decisive actions, politicians for their hard-line thinking, entrepreneurs for their innovative, competitive natures.  But these qualities are only part of the story of leadership.  Neurobiology seems to predispose us to a preference for leaders who above all else express empathy and compassion. [Emphasis mine.]

Why do I like it?

I like that Riess is so strong and persuasive in arguing the case for empathy as central to effective leadership.  In easily understandable terms, Riess explains how, neurologically, emotional judgment and group coordination – two keys to transformational leadership – actually works chemically and structurally.  She also explores the psychology of workplace empathy in the context of attachment theory (i.e., how workplace leadership and power dynamics may be profoundly affected by individuals’ childhood experiences of authority), and her own research debunking the widespread belief that nice leaders are perceived as less competent.

For me, the most fascinating piece of the chapter on “Leadership and the Politics of Empathy” is Riess’s incisive take on the 2016 presidential election.  She convincingly contends that while Trump utilized a form of faux empathy to reach out to voters from some socio-economic groups whom he has a known record of actually exploiting, Clinton (to some extent, following on Obama’s notorious aloofness) demonstrated a total lack of empathy by using devastating language – such as “a basket of deplorables” – to describe her opponent’s followers.

In what situations would this be useful?

If you’re generally interested in the topics of empathy, compassion and self-compassion, I highly recommend this book.  For leaders, I especially recommend this book if you know for yourself – or if you are receiving feedback – that you have difficulty relating emotionally to, communicating with, or motivating other people.  This book is full of tips and techniques for developing and showing empathy, and for connecting authentically in person and via digital communication. And for those of you who need it, it’s all backed up with the latest in neuroscientific research.

What other resources might “pair” well with it?

As regular readers of this blog know by now, my go-to resource on the topics of empathy, compassion, self-compassion, gratitude and other elements of wellness is the Greater Good Science Center out of UC Berkeley. The Center has a new set of initiatives designed to support workplace leaders.

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Leadership Library Review: “The Business Case for Curiosity”

November 2018

“The Business Case for Curiosity” by Francesca Gino (Harvard Business Review,September/October 2018)

What are the big take-aways?

Two things struck me in this eye-opening article on the benefits to businesses and their leaders of intentionally fostering curiosity (defined here as “the impulse to seek new information and experiences and explore novel possibilities”).  First, as the author – behavioral scientist Francesca Gino – asserts, “curiosity is much more important to an enterprise’s performance than was previously thought.” Second, Gino notes that “although leaders might saythey treasure inquisitive minds, in fact most stifle curiosity, fearing it will increase risk and inefficiency.”

Both of these findings rang true to me on experiential and intuitive levels but I am delighted that they are now beginning to be investigated and even measured scientifically.

Why do I like it?

Gino’s research is modest but compelling.  It demonstrates that:

cultivating [curiosity] at all levels helps leaders and their employees adapt to uncertain market conditions and external pressures: When our curiosity is triggered, we think more deeply and rationally about decisions and come up with more-creative solutions. In addition, curiosity allows leaders to gain more respect from their followers and inspires employees to develop more-trusting and more-collaborative relationships with colleagues.

I like that this is being proven out because, as a leadership development specialist (and as an entrepreneur myself, married to an artist), I can attest anecdotally to the role of curiosity in how organizations effectively engage with complexity and in how generative individuals take constructive risks.

I also like that the article discusses the specific benefits of curiosity (fewer decision-making errors, more innovation, reduced group conflict, and better communication including better team performance) while identifying two primary barriers to curiosity: leaders “have the wrong mindset” about exploration as more costly than it is, and they “seek efficiency to the detriment” of exploration, despite the lip-service they may pay to it.

In what situations would this be useful?

Gino’s research finds something that contains a somewhat counter-intuitive presumption: “when we are curious, we view tough situations more creatively.”  In other words, many of us know from our own life experiences that our curiosity often goes right out the window when we are under stress; the truth of this dynamic is so well- and widely-understood that it is regularly discussed in business periodicals articles like this one in Forbes.

However, there is more to it, according to Gino: i.e., if we can sustain our curiosity through a challenging time, we will be more creative.  What may seem counter-intuitive to many people in this finding is that curiosity can even exist in tough circumstances.  Gino describes a number of practices that leaders can adopt that will help them hire for curiosity, as well as intentionally cultivate it throughout an organization by embracing a learning mindset.  (The learning mindset is also known as the “growth mindset” popularized in recent years by Carol Dweck, whose work is explained elegantly by Maria Popova here in Brain Pickings.)

What other resources might “pair” well with it?

There are two other illuminating articles in the same HBR “package” with Gino’s that are of course, great pairings (“From Curious to Competent” by Claudio Fernández-Aráoz, Andrew Roscoe and Kentaro Aramaki; and “The Five Dimensions of Curiosity” by Todd B. Kashdan, David J. Disabato, Fallon R. Goodman and Carl Naughton).

Over the years I have recommended several other resources about curiosity in my Leadership Library blog, including posts reviewing Elizabeth Gilbert’s book Big Magic, Ad Reinhardt’s abstract painting, A More Beautiful Question by Warren Berger, and Design Thinking in general.  Speaking of the Leadership Library, I can’t help but reflect on the fact that the primary force that energizes this blog itself and defines my process for choosing resources to review in it is…(tum-ta-da-dum)…curiosity!

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Leadership Library Review: The Senegalese “Thinker”

October 2018

The Senegalese “Thinker”

Senegalese Thinker (1)What are the big take-aways?

Here is a photo of the little wooden “Thinker” carving that my husband Chris and I brought back from our trip to Senegal last month:

Why do I like it?

I was in Senegal for the second week of September to facilitate a two-day leadership training for the West Africa regional team (photo here) of Catholic Relief Services, an international humanitarian aid organization.  Before the training began, Chris and I had the opportunity to enjoy a couple of days of sight-seeing and to learn a bit about Senegalese history, culture and art.

In addition to the ubiquitous renderings of the baobab trees that serve as a national symbol of Senegal (and whose plight was just covered in thisNew York Timesarticle), another common representation of the country is its unique stylization of Auguste Rodin’s famous sculpture, “The Thinker.”  (The inspiration from Robin is unsurprising, as Senegal was colonized by the French from the middle of the last millennium until it gained independence in 1960.)  I was immediately drawn to the Senegalese “Thinker” carving’s elegant meditative pose, but what I like most about it is that the figure is variously described as a king engaged in an internal struggle, a grandfather ruminating upon the fate of his ancestors and their offspring in the diaspora, and as an embodiment of the West African ideal of leadership: deliberative, mindful and non-reactive.

In what situations would this be useful?

I find the “Thinker’s” calmness in the face of difficulty (s/he looks deeply torn to me) reassuring and provocative.  How refreshing it is in this grim era of hyper-partisan hysteria in the West – with no dearth of prominent leaders exemplifying the mayhem caused by greedy, reactive and self-serving rushes to judgment – to see leadership excellence construed as mindful contemplation!  How ironic and perfect, it seems to me, that I found this representation in Africa. Time means something different on that continent, where all of humanity originated millions of years ago.

I will use my “Thinker” as a continual reminder of the value of ripening to ethical leadership and decision-making.  By ripening, I mean the flow of wisdom that only emerges from the passage of time in a state of paradoxically active receptivity.  Personally, I work on developing active receptivity in my mindfulness practice.

What other resources might “pair” well with it?

It’s impossible to summarize the dazzling array of resources arising from the efflorescence of research on mindfulness and related forms of moment-to-moment awareness.  (I’ve written about some of them previously in the Leadership Library, most recently last March.) My favorite hub for information in this overall area is the Greater Good Science Center out of UC Berkeley, which focuses on the scientific exploration of well-being.  The Center has a new set of initiatives designed to support workplace leaders.  I recommend signing up for the GGSC’s weekly news magazine, which recently featured an article on “The Myths of Mindfulness.”

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Leadership Library Review: Claiming Your Place at the Fire: Living the Second Half of Your Life on Purpose

September 2018

Claiming Your Place at the Fire: Living the Second Half of Your Life on Purpose

by Richard J. Leider and David A. Shapiro (Berrett- Koehler, 2004)

What are the big take-aways?

In many ways a leadership book for readers of all ages, Claiming Your Place at the Fireprovides structured inquiries for exploring, (re-)identifying and owning what I sometimes refer to as your “Big-O Offer” to the world: your life purpose.

Why do I like it?

I like the book’s open-hearted and down-to-earth manner of encouraging the reader to take a fear-free approach to the powerful types of growth that can only occur around “mid-life.” My sense is that the authors loosely define mid-life as the age when a person becomes self-authoring, which is often in the late thirties and beyond, but they also cite some very young exceptions. Leider and Shapiro’s basic philosophy is this:

In the second half of life, the same questions that drive our conception of the good life during the first half inevitably return.  Who am I?  Where do I belong? What do I care about? What is my life’s purpose?  [Authors’ emphases.]  Only now, in the second half, we have a unique opportunity to be the author of our own story.  We have a chance to rewrite it, rather than simply replicate the first half.

Through relatable profiles featuring (younger and older) “elders,” coaching questions, and thoughtful discussion of “four flames of vital aging” (i.e. the flames of identity, community, passion and meaning), Claiming Your Place at the Fireprovides a roadmap for holding healthy conversations about how to become a more sage human being on this planet.

I like that the book is designed to be utilized in a circle of conversation with your tribe of friends, family or colleagues.  I’m using it as the primary resource for a Leadership Book Group this fall on “The Power of Leading at Midlife.”  Eight of us – who happen to be mostly in our fifties – will soon be gathering in person and over the phone for three monthly meetings to play with questions such as: What distinguishes leaders at “midlife” from younger counterparts?  How does leadership purpose evolve with life purpose?  What are some racial, gender and cultural implications of this co-evolution?

In what situations would this be useful?

Claiming Your Place at the Fireis useful for supporting productive soul-searching around work, vocation, meaning-making and being the leader of your own life during the midlife transition and beyond.  I highly recommend it if you’re a midlifer feeling stuck, and even if you’re not feeling stuck.  It’s a book about acknowledging and honoring your unique value to society in general, and to younger generations in particular.  Elevation of the wisest among us, as the authors point out, is an ancient tradition; they argue persuasively that it’s time to revive it in youth-obsessed contemporary Western culture.

What other resources might “pair” well with it?

A couple of my leadership-oriented favorites that would pair particularly well with this book are Discover Your True North Fieldbook: A Personal Guide to Becoming an Authentic Leader by Bill George, et al. (previously reviewed here in the Leadership Library), and Designing Your Life: How to Build a Well-lived, Joyful Life by Bill Burnett and Dave Evans (previously reviewed here in the Leadership Library).  For an inclusive and thought-provoking exploration of midlife and self-authorship that draws on multiple spiritual traditions, I highly recommend Richard Rohr’s Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life (Jossey-Bass, 2011).

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Leadership Library Review: Leadership Lessons from Adopting a Shelter Dog

August 2018

What are the big take-aways?

On a cold day in early April, when there were still dribs and drabs of snow on the ground, my husband Chris and I decided to adopt our first-ever dog.  After months of multiple visits to local rescue agencies, we met Ella at North Country Animal League.  A “transport” from a New Jersey shelter serving the NYC metro area, Ella is a smart and resilient 2-plus-year-old mixed-breed who loves every person and every adventure she can get her paws on.  We chose her because she was both young and uncommonly self-possessed (the only dog who wasn’t barking in the kennel), because she was goofy with tennis balls (she wanted to play but, poignantly, didn’t seem to know how), and because she pressed earnestly against her chain-linked kennel door for maximum contact with us until the last moment, when we finally had to peel ourselves away from her warmth.  Chris and I knew at the time that we couldn’t imagine exactly what we were getting ourselves into by adopting a dog, and one of the most significant things we couldn’t have anticipated about Ella in particular – but has been evident since the beginning – is her intense motivation to learn.  Which therefore makes her a powerful teacher.

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Why do I like it?

I like that the process we’ve undertaken of training Ella (and vice versa), through “Good Manners” classes and private consults, has offered me an unexpected trove of leadership lessons from self-observation.  Here are four examples, along with  some questions they raise:

Focus.  Under the guidance of our phenomenal trainer Tay Margison, we are working with Ella on managing triggers (Ella can be suddenly and inexplicably aggressive with certain other dogs) and increasing her focus.  On walks, we try to spot distractions like chipmunks before Ella does so we can prevent derailments by redirecting her, and we ramp her down as swiftly as possible if she gets escalated.  Walking Ella in downtown Montpelier at busy times of day makes me notice how frequently my own attention drifts!  I need to maintain my situational awareness or else something bad, like a dogfight, could erupt with no warning.  Ella senses when I am well-grounded and concentrating because then I’m consistently rewarding desired behaviors with her favorite little freeze-dried duck treats.  Naturally, when I lose focus, so does Ella.  Self-observation questions: How far ahead – as well as up, down, behind and sideways – are you looking?  How do you know when your attention is drifting? What do you do to get your focus back? What’s at risk in the meantime?

Authenticity.  Ella can be sly and inventive when it comes to food and other opportunities, around the house and on the leash, to test boundaries.  (This is how Chris and I learn what our boundaries are!)  Watching our every move, Ella exposes our unconscious assumptions and reveals our lapses by not hesitating to exploit them.  She has a hound’s nose, a nearly prehensile knob on the end of her snout, and is easily sidetracked and stubborn when she smells something especially interesting (read: putrescent).  If I move toward her to call her away, Ella ignores me, sniffing harder.  And why should she heed my commands?  My feet are not facing in the direction I’m telling her we’re going!  It’s obvious to Ella when I’m literally not “walking the talk.”  To her, I mean business only when my actions speak louder than my words.  Self-observation questions: How authentic is your communication? Are your own feet pointed in the direction where you want everyone else to go?  How committed are you to the next steps you’ve deemed necessary to take?

Accepting “What Is.”  Unless she’s sacked out and having those mysterious dreams that curl her lips, twitch her legs or wag her tail, Ella lives fully in the present.  She accepts me and Chris and our imperfect ways, perhaps because she has an adaptable disposition and no choice but to deal with her current reality as best she can.  Ella’s embrace of her new circumstances is endearing and inspires me to practice more radical forms of acceptance, too.  Humor and perspectivizing are my go-to strategies for working on non-attachment when I feel reactive.  (I did not realize how ridiculously “Archie Bunker” I had become about my cherished TV chair until Ella chewed $500-worth of repairs out of it!)  Also, when it comes to Ella, Chris and I humbly acknowledge our ignorance and offset our limitations by seeking support from dog-savvy friends and professionals like Tay.  Self-observation questions:  In your current reality, what are you accepting and what are you resisting? What would more humor and perspective help you let go of?  Whom could you ask for assistance, if you need it?

Emergence.  North Country Animal League possessed no background information at all on Ella, including the circumstances under which she had arrived at the original shelter in New Jersey.  Ella is getting a fresh start with us.  This has meant that, for me, over the past four months there has been a sacred element to our tender time of mutual revelation, emergence and transformation while the three of us have been discovering who we are – separately and together – in this tiny newborn constellation.  I first became conscious of falling in love with Ella when, at some point early on, I noticed I couldn’t inhale enough of the sweet scent of her musky, vaguely floral scruff.  Now, when my head hits the pillow each night, I can’t wait for the morning when she’s allowed on the bed to cuddle with us.  My deepening gratitude for Ella is opening my heart, aligning me with a sharper sense of purpose, and inviting me to step into a bigger version of myself. Self-observation questions:  When you are most enlivened, aligned and spacious, what are you doing?  What does this tell you about your purpose?  Who or what invites you into your bigger or higher self?

In what situations would this be useful?

Self-observation exercises of any kind are always useful to leaders committed to increasing self-awareness.  (As John Whitmore wrote in Coaching for Performance, “I am able to control only that which I am aware of.  That which I am unaware of controls me.  Awareness empowers me.”)  A tool I typically use with clients who want to achieve a breakthrough is to co-design a self-observation experiment together.  I begin by asking the client, “What do you want to find out?  What assumptions are you consciously making?  How could you test those assumptions?”  (Obviously, training Ella has been doing this for me a lot, lately!) Then, the client and I co-create a simple, targeted experiment that is likely to yield the data s/he is seeking. In short, I encourage my clients to get super-curious, and then to observe themselves in action without judgment. Not judging, and just observing, is key. One client quit interrupting his co-workers in less than 48 hours by deciding he would make a hash-mark in his notebook every time he noticed himself speaking over others.

What other resources might “pair” well with it?

For more on self-observation exercises for leaders, check out Marilee Adams’s engaging corporate fable and self-coaching tools in Change Your Questions, Change Your Life, previously reviewed here in the Leadership Library, or Carol Dweck’s Mindset if you’re into neuroscience.  To learn more about the complexities of behavioral communication between primates and canines, I recommend Dr. Patricia McConnell’s book and blog by the same name, The Other End of the Leash.

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