While the 2018 Alaska Iditarod was in full swing earlier this year, I was in Colorado seizing the opportunity to take a backcountry dog sledding tour at Krabloonik. With a brief orientation, an experienced musher and a team of driven animals running in tandem for the pure joy of the travel and the motivation of reaching a destination, I experienced a once-in-a-lifetime adventure.
There is no shortage of information when searching for the analogy of a dog sled team with human work teams. But I have to say that until I was actually sitting in that sled, watching the unity of the pack and experiencing the rhythm of their movements, I didn’t truly understand the magnitude of their team spirit and mechanics.
Though the dogs most definitely form a team, each one has their own unique skill that is equally important to the success of the team’s journey. The strength of the wheel dogs (those harnessed closest to the sled) pull weight, while swing dogs help set the pace and drive the rest of the team. The leader dogs communicate with the musher on speed and direction based on conditions of the trail.
Swing dogs travel directly behind the leaders and typically are “in training” for that role in the future. They “follow the leader”, a term which sometimes carries a negative connotation in our society. In truth, it is a misunderstood and undervalued role. There is no time wasted vying for the lead; rather, the followers substantiate the work of the leaders by maintaining the steady pace. Stated simply, every member of the team is important, plays a critical role and motivates the other members.
Before this adventure, I could have easily researched dog sled teams and written a blog post comparing those teams to the ones I work with every day. It would have been a meaningful, relevant post with a beneficial takeaway for the reader. But the experience of watching the dog sled team in action – feeling the power of their run, observing the interaction between the dogs, picking up on the non-verbal cues between the leader dogs and the mushers – these left a marked imprint about the impact that teamwork has on the finished product, the customer experience, and the ability to reach the destination.
As leaders, we often succumb to the weight of responsibility we feel in ensuring our teams function to capacity. We want to step in and change the course if we think the team is not on the most efficient path. We want to prove our leadership by posing a better idea.
Sitting on a sled behind a team of dogs, I was in unfamiliar territory and I had no choice but to trust that the team would get me to the destination safely. I was merely a human along for the ride. My job was to enjoy the scenery and be fascinated by the work of the pack – and to let them do the job for which they had been trained.