It had been, by Francie Dalton’s admission, a bad day. A business consultant who works with nonprofits, she was halfway through leading a grueling, two-day executive retreat that was not going well.
“Some members were actually sabotaging one another’s work,” she said of that day several years ago. “It just was a sick, fractured executive team. . . . That evening I came home and sat on the deck with a glass of wine and just rested, trying to chill out on my little glider.”
Francie looked into the woods beyond her deck and at the squirrels in those woods. As she watched them diligently going about their squirrelly business, inspiration struck. “I was watching all the squirrels, and I got all these ideas,” Francie said.
She would shape those ideas into nearly two dozen bullet points, but her main epiphany was this: “When times are tough, people are crestfallen and don’t realize that if they took some lessons from these little creatures, all facets of life would be more constructive.”
In other words: You could learn a lot from a squirrel.
This is what Francie eventually wrote:
Squirrels are ALWAYS facing intense competition amid threatening socioeconomic conditions. Much of what will equip us to prevail in tough times can be discerned by observing their behaviors. Squirrels are:
1. early risers.
2. highly industrious; endlessly striving.
3. not intimidated by those larger than they are.
4. undaunted that the odds are stacked heavily against them.
5. not expectant of help from others; they take responsibility for themselves.
6. able to accomplish amazing feats because they’re willing to try what those who are smarter than they are believe to be impossible.
7. willing to turn themselves upside down to get what they need.
8. establishers of territory or niche, and are willing to be aggressive in defending it.
9. perpetually, keenly alert.
10. FAST — responding instantly to opportunities and threats.
11. instantaneous decision makers when necessary.
12. willing to be off balance, even to fall.
13. willing to take the leap, to take risks, to get what they want.
14. able to ignore their wounds and continue their mission.
15. resolved not to cower when under peer attack.
16. confident. They’re committed to outlasting or outsmarting their enemies.
17. sophisticated communicators.
18. willing to be thought of and treated as pests if that helps them succeed.
19. not passive; they behave commensurate with being in a competition for survival.
20. action oriented, regardless of their fears. They have a fighting spirit rather than a victim mentality.
21. unconquerably persistent. When confronted by barriers, they find another way to win. They just never, Never, NEVER give up.
Francie thinks that this is a message that many executives could benefit from hearing. She said: “We need a template that our brain can default to that’s easy to remember, so that we can pull ourselves up more quickly by our bootstraps and model [the behavior so] others can do the same.”
The squirrel can be that template.
I don’t have much experience at the coal face of capitalism, but I have the feeling that high-powered Masters of the Universe prefer to think of themselves as sharks or lions, not squirrels. Aren’t they more likely to embrace Sun Tzu’s “The Art of War” than Francie Dalton’s “The Art of the Squirrel”?
“If you need to go to work and be a shark, a lion or a tiger, great,” she said. “But usually those particular things don’t have many predators. Here we have a critter that everybody wants to eat — they’re prey to everything — and yet they prevail.”
Also, when sharks or lions are faced with adversity, they attack, a decision that may not be the most sensible business maneuver.
“I’m not attempting to get people to think of themselves as squirrels,” Francie said. “I’m attempting to get them to recognize the extent to which these little creatures deal with conflict and what their coping mechanisms are. . . . Humans can do all those things on that list.”
In her own career, Francie, 60, has been as tenacious as a squirrel. A onetime teenage runaway from West Virginia, she joined the Army, worked in intelligence as a German translator, went to college after getting out of the Army and then joined a flooring company where she rose to become its first female executive. In 1991, she took out a loan and opened her own company, Dalton Alliances.
Francie has since moved from the treed lot where she had her squirrel breakthrough and now lives in a high-rise apartment in Anne Arundel County. I said that probably reduced her access to squirrels.
“Yes, sadly,” she said. “But I have them in my heart and I have them in my mind.”
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For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.