The Perils of Prairie Dog Thinking — Are You Stuck in the Weeds?

Jen Coken
4 min readJan 2, 2023

The author humbly advises you to read the following in your best Morgan Freeman voice.

Behold the industrious prairie dog; humble, head bowed, quiet, perfectly content to stay out of sight.

Can you relate as you obsess over the smallest details, striving for perfection? You’re dedicated, task-oriented, and low-maintenance, in a word: reliable. Let’s be real. Every organization needs leaders who perform consistently. But is your laser focus keeping you from seeing the big picture?

Let’s say you have an important meeting with your boss (or the board). You think you need an extra PowerPoint slide or two (or three or four) for your presentation to go well. So, what do you do? Just like a prairie dog excavating its underground tunnel system, you spend long, grueling, crack-of-dawn hours working on those slides until they are perfect. You even add some color coding for organization. Surely all this extra work will impress your boss.

But in reality, the boss only sees time wasted on the minutia.

You know why? Your boss, for better and for worse, thinks like an eagle.

The eagle soars high above the ground with their eyes focused on the horizon. They are constantly scanning the terrain for prey. They can sense storms rolling in and re-strategize in moments. Their perspective is broad, so they benefit from “Big Picture” thinking, forethought, and adaptability.

Meanwhile, down on the ground…

The thing with prairie dogs is that they don’t see anything but what’s right in front of them. They’re so focused that they never look up, to the side, or even down. In fact, it won’t notice you until you make a noise or startle it. (I know this from my cycling days in Colorado!)

Prairie dogs live life one step at a time. They aren’t planning ahead since what the future holds isn’t immediately pressing. They might get distracted by something shiny or exciting rustling in the grass (a snake), but when it goes away, poof!-they forget about it and go back to minding their own business as if nothing ever happened.

Prairie dogs are leaders who only focus on the immediate, responding to fires and reacting to the world around them. They are far too involved in the day-to-day and might even be seen as micro managers (there, I said it, but only if the shoe fits). Having a micro-manager…