THE BLOG
02/01/2011 12:33 pm ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Leadership Lesson from a Puppy Matchmaker

To the intellectual crowd, "puppy matchmaker" sounds utterly ridiculous. I would have thought so too a year ago, before my new role emerged. From the surface it looks like the Bravo show, "The Millionaire Matchmaker." It was not I who coined myself this term, but the hundreds of people I have met connecting them to their right partner, their puppy.

Now this is not my only job -- I am the founder of Unleashed, an organization that unleashes the power and potential in girls, empowering them to be agents of social change, using animal rights and rescue as their leadership laboratory. The program is an intense, transformational experience for middle school girls, who, at a vulnerable time of their lives, are realizing that they have the capacity to create an impact in their world. But because the program is girl-driven and there is a lot to do on the rescue front, I have become their employee (unpaid employee, that is). In that role, one of my biggest tasks is to connect the pups at greatest risk for being euthanized to the teams of girls, have them select and then work towards getting the pups to New York and matched with their human partners.

What lessons can be learned by being the NYC Puppy Matchmaker? Let's start with a very basic one that is essential for all leaders -- having a vision. Sounds simple, but let's not be fooled. A clear, well-articulated vision is difficult to formulate. My initial vision was to empower the girls to be social change agents and partner them with rescue organizations who needed their help. This vision quickly disintegrated as I saw rescues and shelters rejecting us immediately. I was told the girls could make baby blankets for the pups, do a food drive, write letters to congress or have their moms foster. This wasn't exactly what I had in mind. The actual program was predicated on teaching leadership lessons and applying them to the work that had to be done, creating educational awareness campaigns, learning the real issues masked by those of animal welfare and having the girls diagnose the problems and create a solution, collaboratively. When I had interviewed groups of girls the prior year, they warned me that nobody would let them do what I envisioned. They were right!

Unbeknownst to them, I am a persistent, risk-taking leader who can leap obstacles in a single bound. "If it doesn't exist, let's create it" is the motto I live by. Unleashed, the rescue, was formed to support Unleashed, the program. This wasn't as easy as it sounds. Most people thought I was doubling the work effort, and I was told I had to simplify the notion. "Have to" doesn't exist in my vocabulary. What I recognized was that I had to stay aligned to my vision related to the empowerment of the girls. If I was to step away from that concept, Unleashed would be severely compromised. I was very clear about the most important aspects of my vision.

Included in my vision was: each part of Unleashed would operate on the same principles, values and philosophy. In my case it was authenticity, relational, community oriented, empowering and partnerships. I wanted everyone who came into contact with Unleashed to have a similar experience, from girl participants, school administration, our board, volunteers, foster families and adopters. Again, not so simple -- because it forces you, as a leader, to think about all the minutia of your actions, communication, principles, procedures and even the impressions given off. From an e-mail, to a handshake, to an interaction with parents or a sponsor, your values have to be transparent and synergistic. As a leader, who has time to think?? Especially a leader of a growing organization! But it is imperative. Your vision serves as the foundation for everything you do moving forward and provides you with the scaffolding to return to when you might stray. Psychologists may call it your leadership "super ego" or maybe it is your "leadership core". Whatever the semantics, Lesson Number One from the NYC Puppy Matchmaker says: "Define your vision and stay aligned and committed to it, despite the obstacles and critics."