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Lessons from a Sled Dog Team – Part I

Sled dogs in a race.
Photo by Riann McClure on Unsplash.

Introduction to a Ballet on Ice

During the many years I lived in Alaska, I watched several dog sled races in progress, and even had the privilege of trying my hand with a training sled, in Nome, at the finish line of the famous Iditarod.

Watching a sled and team is similar to watching a ballet on ice. When the team is “on step” they move as one graceful, powerful unit. This same team, especially right before a race, is anything but graceful. The scene is absolute chaos.

We don’t judge a sled team based on the pre-race jitters, because we know they won’t be in this preparatory situation forever. Eventually they will begin to run and everything changes.

Four truths about sled dog teams

Over the years I’ve had the opportunity to be around several working sled teams, enough to observe the consistent patterns or, as I like to call them, “The Four Truths About Sled Dog Teams.”

1. None of the dogs looks like the dogs in the movies

When you picture a sled dog team, you’re likely picturing strong and stout Huskies with sharp blue eyes and coats that stand up to sub-zero temperatures. We have Hollywood to thank for this imagery, and while it’s a beautiful look, it’s not always true of real Iditarod teams. There are some Husky teams, but the types of dogs range for small, powerfully built mixed breeds to standard poodles.

2. Sled dogs are born to run

Having been around several teams and owners, it is evident that they are passionate about two things–running and pulling. Jeff King, four time winner of the Iditarod, said, “I’d like to see my dogs happy all the time, but I can’t run all the time and that’s when they’re happiest.”

3. Sled dogs are miserable when they aren’t fulfilling their potential

When they aren’t running, there’s unease when you’re around the team. They seem lethargic, but are keyed in to any movement or indicator that they might get the opportunity to run. If they think there’s a chance to run they bark and pull at their leashes.

Right before a race or run it gets even crazier. Once they are harnessed to the sled their energy level goes off the charts. It’s not long before they begin turning their energy onto each other and those attempting to harness them. They fight for position, attention and every scrap of food, even though they are all fed well. They get tangled up in the traces. They require a “Handler” to keep the chaos in check.

4. The race is about them

Once the race or run begins, the team gets on step. They sync up and the raw energy turns to synergy. At that point, people don’t come to watch the musher. They come to watch the energy and grace of a team that can pull together.

The musher is secondary. A musher has two main responsibilities: aligning the team for the best results and hanging on for dear life while they direct the team toward the finish line.

We are not dogs, but the truths are the same

We can apply these truths about sled dogs to our professional teams to get some ideas about how to successfully run as a team and win. When you understand these traits about your team, you’ll have the formula for completing small and large successful initiatives.

1. The team you lead is unique

In the same way that sled teams are diverse, so are the people you work with. The individuals on your team have unique gifts, unique skills, unique perspectives. Your job is to align these individuals for a purpose.

2. The team you lead is born to run

Your team is full of potential and raw energy. They are at their best when they understand their strengths and are allowed fulfill their potential. They will work hard if they have a clear and compelling purpose that they believe in, and the steady and consistent influence of a leader who knows when to guide and when to let the momentum work on its own.

3. Your team is miserable if they aren’t fulfilling their potential

Without purpose and opportunity, teams will become lethargic. They also become hyper focused on the unimportant and peripheral issues. Eventually they will begin to turn their energy on each other and you.

If you aren’t helping the team move toward mission fulfillment, expect conflict, trivial complaints, lack of focus on the customer and hyper focus on the faults of others. You will soon find yourself functioning as a full-time Handler.

4. The race is not about you – it’s about them

Let me repeat that, THE RACE IS NOT ABOUT YOU…IT’S ABOUT THEM! Those who desire to lead, but don’t understand this, those who need the attention and have the internal wish to be recognized and needed by others… are relegated to the status of the “Handler.”

What all teams need

Daniel Pink, in his book “Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us (Riverhead Hardcover, 2009), cites three universal motivators: Autonomy, Mastery, and Purpose. I suggest that there is an order to these if we want to have a high-performing team:

1. Purpose

Individuals, and I would add teams, need something to work for that is bigger than themselves, a mission that impacts their world in a positive way, something that energizes them and pulls from them their individual strengths and abilities.

2. Mastery

People need more than just a great cause, they need the skills and abilities to achieve their part of the mission. We need to make sure that they are being developed to be the best they can be at what they can do.

3. Autonomy

Like the sled dog team, they need the freedom to put what they know into practice. Teams don’t need a lot of “handling.” If the purpose is clear and worthwhile, and they feel like they are being trusted to max out their potential, they’ll perform. Then they need guidance, but not a lot of restraint. The leader needs to guide the energy rather than squelch it.

Paul Bentley
Boise State Center for Professional Development