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Lessons from a Sled Dog Team: Part II

dog sled team with tripping dog
Photo by Catalin Sandru on Unsplash

Will you be a Handler or a Leader?

In my previous article, I referred to two roles regarding the running of a sled dog team: The Handler, and the Musher/Leader.

Every leader has to be a handler from time-to-time, but it shouldn’t be a full-time job. As it pertains to the Sled Dog analogy, Tim Pappas, an Iditarod musher described it well, “It’s crazy, and then it’s just peaceful–I think that’s why we do it.” (Anchorage Daily News March 11, 2020)

Some professional teams even have handlers, people assigned to help deal with the chaos. Even with the support of a project manager it’s easy to expend our energy on handling. Some would-be leaders actually get stuck in the handler role. Read the following to help you determine which role best describes you.

A Handler Restrains Their Team

The Handler is in the middle of the pre-race chaos. They are responsible for restraining the power and potential of the team until It’s time to race. They focus on keeping the dogs from biting each other, jumping out of their harnesses, and getting tangled in their leads – all while avoiding stepping in the mess being made by the team. In other words, they are responsible for restraining the potential by controlling the team.

How to Identify a Handler in the Workplace

From time to time, all managers get drawn into the Handler role, but it should never be the long-term role of a leader. If a would-be leader struggles with the transition, the force and dynamics of team behaviors can quickly draw them into a permanent Handler. If this happens, let me prepare you for a couple of difficult scenarios: 1) Your team will never fulfill its purpose or reach its potential, or 2) Your team will run off with a real leader and leave you in the slush.

The Center of Attention

You can’t miss them. They are “control central.” All decisions are made by them. In a twisted way, they enjoy the chaos because they like the attention of having the answers and solutions. They can’t afford to delegate because they can’t handle the possibility of losing power and attention.

Constantly Dealing with Chaos

When a team of sled dogs is restrained, they are unhappy and they turn their energy on each other and the Handler. When a person is stuck in Handler mode, all of the team potential and energy gets focused inwardly. The team becomes demoralized and they see the Handler as the enemy and other team members as threats. Eventually, the attention they desire will come from Human Resource complaints and dissatisfied customers.

Busy Without Results

When a manager is busy without results, this is the clearest indicator they may be a Handler. Handlers complain often about the long hours and the sense of being overwhelmed by the job. The full-time Handler never experiences the thrill of the race and can’t even imagine winning. They blame external factors and their team for the lack of productivity and low morale.

Focused More on Protecting Themselves Than Projecting the Mission

Great sled dog teams are visually stunning. When they are running they project energy, synergy, grace, and beauty. They are a “Moving Mission” as they fly toward the finish line.

Full-time handlers never get to experience the exhilaration of their teams at the finish line. Handlers are the ones dressed in the arm-length leather gloves and heavy overalls to keep from getting bit. In an organization, they are protected with life-sucking rules, policies, and limitations as they work hard to restrain the natural potential of the team.

A Leader Gives Guidance in Motion

They “Handle” quickly and with purpose: They see beyond the immediate situation. They “Keep the
main thing the main thing.” They resist the temptation to try to fix everything. They have places to go and they make adjustments during the race.

How to Identify a Leader in the Workplace

Lance Mackay, a long-time Iditarod musher, tells the story of starting with a 300-dollar-truck and dogs that didn’t meet the criteria for other teams. Within a few years, he won the Iditarod. During an off-the-cuff conversation he said something that has stuck with me,“Well, they’re a great team because I eat beans and rice and they eat steak and eggs.”

Leaders Know their Team

They can identify unique talents, strengths, and drivers. They aren’t afraid to make adjustments that help the team be it’s best. They put the team first.

Leaders Know the Way

The Know and Go, John Maxwell, says “Leaders know the way, show the way, and go the way. A Handler never gets to be on the sled while the leader has to be there. Leaders know the way. They guide and they are with the team every step of the way. They “Go with the Mo” A good leader knows not to mess with momentum.

Let Go of Being a Handler and Become a Servant Leader

Are you giving your team the attention and support they deserve? Are you displaying the characteristics of a Servant Leader?

It can be a little scary when the team starts moving toward the goal. I recently watched a short video of musher Jeff King on the trail. He spent most of his time trying to slow the team down and, without much success, keep the sled upright.

For a good leader, the issue isn’t motivation, it’s guidance in motion. Leaders keep the team on course without slowing progress. They know when to ride and when to run.

Unlike the portrayal of sled teams by Hollywood, much of the musher’s time is spent running alongside the team, encouraging them. When they ride it’s usually to help slow down and provide stability in the rough patches. The effective leader knows when to ride and when to run alongside or even help pull the team through rough spots.

So, what will it be?

Paul Bentley
Boise State Center for Professional Development