Dog Sled Leadership Lessons

Taking lessons from other people’s exploits can be extremely valuable. As a reflective leader, observing the way other people do things in totally different circumstances can sometimes give us clues and ideas about how our own leadership is aligned more widely.

Successful teams exist in all walks of life, and indeed across species boundaries! In the gruelling sport of dog-sledding what is it that the best dog teams rely on? This article explores some remarkable lessons on leadership that come from an unlikely source, the Iditarod. 

I recently watched a documentary about the Iditarod, a gruelling multi-day dog sled race in the Alaskan wilderness. There is a lot to learn about leadership watching the dog mushers (the guys on the sleds) with their dogs.  By necessity the musher stands on the sled at the back of their pack of 16 dogs and as such they need to lead their packs very astutely from behind; in many ways this emulates what leadership should be about: Wellbeing is all:  The mushers take care, first and foremost, of their dogs’ wellbeing. Dogs that are not feeling ready or fit for the run are cared for as much as possible but if they are unable to keep running they are removed from the pack so as not to slow down the rest, and to preserve their welfare. Mushers care deeply about their dogs and will not put their own gains ahead of that of their pack. Choose the leaders: Mushers place their dogs in the pack according to their strengths and skills. Dogs that run out front of the pack are those that others will happily follow, that know a clear direction of where they are going and that can run fast. Similarly, in schools teachers that have a clear idea of the ethos and values of the school, as well as those who can lead effectively, should be placed strategically so that they can lead their colleagues and drive the school development forward in line with the ethos of the school. Maximise the influence of strong practitioners: Dogs in the middle of the pack are the ‘strong’ ones. Those who have the ability to pull hard in the direction determined by the front runners, and who are happy not to lead the pack (in other words, good team players), are placed closer to the sled to provide the power and momentum to keep the sled moving. In schools the best teachers should be given the most challenging groups.  Remove disruptive influences: Mushers will take the decision to remove dogs from the pack if they are disruptive in any way. For example if a dog always fights with their partner, or shows tendencies to try and pull in the wrong direction, they are removed from the pack, even if the pack is then down a member. In essence mushers are happier to run a smaller pack that is always pulling in the right direction rather than count on the extra power given by the extra dog.  Schools who hold on to teachers who frustrate the balance of power are likely to spend their time trying to fix problems that should not occur, such as internal squabbles, negative influence and contrary attitudes, and this means that the school cannot reach the powerful point of school development that comes with cohesiveness amongst the staff.  Focus on downtime: Mushers make sure that their dogs have the right amount of rest. In fact this is enforced by the race regulations! This focus ensures that the dogs are always ready to run strongly and effectively. Likewise, school leaders should make sure that their staff has rest times. Loading more and more on to teachers workload has a negative effect on morale and therefore effectiveness. Rule of thumb; add something on, take something else off.