Last week we had the first significant snowfall of the winter. Around 10 cm fell in just a few hours. A friend of mine always celebrates the heavy snows because it is the time to take his team of Huskies out for a run.
He always tells about a joke amongst mushers that says ‘Unless you’re the lead dog, the view never changes.’ While it lends itself to a funny mental image, I have been wondering about how this relates to teamwork.
“When I take six dogs into the forest for a run, I must first understand a bit about them. Which am I going to put in what position?” he tells me. “Dogs typically run in pairs with a lead pair up front, swing dogs in the middle and the stronger wheel dogs nearest the sled to help the sled around the corners.”
Doing the maths, I calculated that there are 720 (6x5x4x3x2) different possible arrangements that only six dogs could position on the line.
So I got curious and wanted to know more by interviewing him some more. This is what the friend described to satisfy my appetite for understanding.
Knowing the strengths, weaknesses and individual personalities of the dogs helps him to reduce the number from 720 to something more manageable of course.
“I have dogs that have settled into their positions, but occasionally, something can happen while I’m out in the woods,” he says. “Changes must be made quickly to keep the team moving forward. There is no point in shouting or getting angry. The dogs will pick up on any negative emotions you send their way. You must make the changes quickly and get back moving again.”
There had been times like the one when the best lead dog just had refused to go forward when there was too much fresh snow in the way. Swapping him out for another dog who was happy to break new trail fixed the problem until became obsessed with a scent of a reindeer in the air.
I can’t help but wonder how he can take all of these decisions and assessments while bulleting through the snow on a sled in extreme temperatures.
A rider can never be sure about what is around the next bend or how the dogs will react to it. Keeping an eye on the dogs may be important but so too is knowing when just to let them run because that is what they ultimately want to do.
That made me think. How far would my friend get if he constantly stopped to adjust the little things and the positions of the pack?
Not far I would say. The team effort of getting to the destination is not about tweaking the team, but about maintained movement.
John C. Maxwell, a speaker, and an author once wrote that 80% of problems of an organization would solve themselves by only sustaining the momentum. And that is precisely what my friend was describing in terms of mushers.
Leadership is not about solving problems. It’s about keeping the sled moving.