How To Handle the Unknowns in Three Easy Steps

I adopted my dog, Louie, in 2013, and not a day goes by without a leadership lesson from that silly dog. I came across Louie’s adoption file recently as I was attempting to purge old paperwork. I smiled when I saw the name Chandler (his original name), and rummaged through the papers I took with me for our first visit to the vet.

Then I saw it. There was a lone piece of paper stuck between two other sheets. I had never noticed this sheet before—and as I glanced over it, a part of me wished I had never seen it at all.

There was a picture of Louie posing with one of the shelter employees for the camera. He looked more like a puppy than I remembered, even though the paperwork said he was a year old at the time of adoption. Printed on one side of the sheet was a checklist of behaviors that every soon-to-be-adoptive pet parent would want to know about: good with children, house-trained, good with other dogs, and so on. Unfortunately, every behavior had one word next to it:


How could that be? After all, I took him for a walk through the store conducting the Adopt-A-Pet weekend. He was fine with other dogs. A little girl came up and kissed him on the head, and he allowed her to with no reaction whatsoever. That meant he was good with children, right? And he did not have an accident in the store, so he must have been house-trained. Yet that word “unknown” kept creeping back into my thoughts.

Seeing this sheet and realizing I had missed the “unknowns” of my pet gave me paws. I quickly realized I made the same mistake so many leaders do. We observe certain behaviors, assess certain strengths, and then become narrowly focused on what we believe to be true about someone. We quickly peg them as a wonderful asset to our organization or team.

Things quickly changed when Louie came home with me. He started displaying many challenging behaviors. Looking back, I can now see how the following three tips would have been helpful.

Don’t Make Assumptions

We know better than to make assumptions, but it is a habit that is easy to fall into. I made assumptions based on a few short minutes of observing Louie’s behavior. While many leaders have great interviewing techniques and onboarding processes, we still primarily rely on our assumptions. Sometimes it is a gut feel or intuition that we’ve trusted before with great success. But let’s be honest—as decisive leaders with “get ’er done” attitudes, we mostly make assumptions and pay for them later.


Ask questions. Oh, how I would have asked the shelter many more questions rather than trotting off happily ever after. We need to ask more questions of others. Remember how we were taught to ask open-ended questions? Not interview questions, but questions that get to the heart of the person. Listen to their answers. And then ask more questions. Don’t interrogate, but do try to learn about them as a person, not as someone who can plug into a role. Everyone has value. Honor others by learning about them.

Continually Observe

While asking questions, be sure to observe behaviors as well. You learn so much about people when you watch their mannerisms. They are telling you more about themselves with their body language than they are with their words. But don’t check the box just yet. Go back to point number one, and don’t assume you have them figured out because you asked questions and observed them for a time. Continually observe people to learn more about them and to eventually know them well. Our greatest need is to be known and loved. There is no greater gift to give someone than the gift of being known.

I wish I had known these three points when I was adopting Louie and about his so-called “unknowns” for that matter. I could not have asked him any questions. However, I had plenty of questions for the shelter I adopted him from. But they were limited in their knowledge of his background. Even so, at this point, I would not trade a thing. I have had years of love from this little dog, not to mention the many leadership lessons I’ve learned while on this journey with Louie. And for that, I am truly grateful.

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