What Mushing Dogs Has Taught Me About Leadership

I have worked for some great bosses and seen great leaders in action my whole life, but I think I have learned the most about leadership from observing and experiencing the joys of working with dog sled teams. If you are not familiar with this activity, I encourage you to try it. The dynamics and relationships that are involved are awesome!

For those not familiar with it, the ancient tradition of dog sledding involves working with a team of dogs to traverse snowy terrain, using a sled and a musher (the human ‘driving’ the sled). Traditionally, dog sledding helped make it possible to survive in harsh northern climates. Hauling heavy loads over snow and ice, dog teams ensured natives could travel farther for hunting and food and fuel gathering. I have had the pleasure of both working as a handler and caretaker for these amazing animals and mushing my own small teams of dogs.

My team and I dry land mushing in the Glass Mountains.

I could go on at length, but I will try to break down my observations to a few key elements. To a certain degree, the musher and his team of dogs are like a leader and her team of colleagues. Some of the ways to be a great musher are the same ways to be a great team leader.

  • Know your team members- Get to know your team members as individuals. Each dog has a unique personality and skill set. The same applies to your team; get to know them as people. And this also applies to those that you already know well. People change over time and by staying current on who your team is, you will be able to use them more effectively (see below).
  • Build relationships with team members-If you take the time to get to know your team members, take the time to develop a relationship with them as well.   It is a lot easier to ask your team to pull you out of a tricky situation if you have a relationship with them. I have seen this many times with mushers and their teams. Those mushers that take the time to build relationships with the dogs can always get more out of a team than those that don’t. Perhaps the dogs are more open about it, they can’t help it, but it still applies to you and your team as well. The connections you have with your team will help you all work together to overcome obstacles and reach your goals.
  • Understand individual strengths and weaknesses- Know who your lead dogs are, your wheel dogs, your point dogs, etc. If you assign project tasks to your team, make the best use of your resources by using their strengths to your advantage. Pair a stronger worker with one that needs more guidance. Plugging your team into the correct roles can increase its effectiveness dramatically.
Sugar’s fun and infectious attitude is great at the center of the team, keeping the team motivated.
  • If it’s not working, don’t be afraid to try something else- Sometimes a dog isn’t working is the position that you put them. Mix it up! Try them somewhere else. Be creative about how you use your team, and you can sometimes be surprised at the results. A new lead dog may stand out or someone may reveal hidden strengths. Don’t be afraid to try it or try it again if necessary.
  • Love what you do- Your team can tell if you want to be there or are just ‘doing your job’. Find some element of the project or the team itself that you can enjoy/be proud of/love. This will shine through to your team and can help energize and invigorate them. Just like with the relationships you develop with your team members, this small thing can have a profound impact on team performance.

Whether you are working with a team of dogs or a team of colleagues, these tips can guide you to be a better leader. For more information on the joys of dog sledding or to share a unique place you have learned leadership lessons, please comment below.

Smiles all around! Sugar, Bear, and I skijoring and enjoying working together.

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