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Rated: E · Essay · Self Help · #2236579
Fact: the lead dog is not in charge!
Anyone who has been in a leadership position or worked on a team has likely heard the adage that "unless you are the lead dog, the view never changes" which would seem to make a good argument for endeavoring to always be the lead dog. However, anyone who understands sled dog racing will immediately see the fallacy of that quote. I grew up in Sisters, Oregon, which was famous for its annual sled dog races. Not only did I attend the races every year, I spent several of my summers working on the farms and ranches of the dog team owners where I could watch the dogs interact. Although I did not realize it at the time, my mushing education from my 12th to 18th years was to form the basis of my lifelong leadership view. You see, the truth is the lead dog is not the most important dog on the team. In fact, the main job of the lead dog is to guide the team as instructed by the musher. In essence, the lead dog is really just middle management!

A sled dog team, like many business teams, is broken down into four parts and is directed by a musher (the fifth part) who is, in most cases, along just to interpret the terrain and relay instructions to the lead dog. More than once I've seen mushers fall of the sled and be left behind by the team, so it is difficult to say they are essential to success!

The lead dog's job is to take instructions from the musher, find and follow the trail, and set the pace of the team. If this is all you know about sled dog racing (or leadership), you may think that the lead dog is in charge -- but you'd be wrong. As is commonly the case in the leadership of human teams, the real influence of the team's direction is the next link in the sled dog team chain; the swing dogs. The swing dogs are key because they are the only dogs that can actually see the lead dog! Moreover, although there is often only one lead dog, there are almost always two swing dogs. Therefore, if the musher calls Gee (right) and the swing dogs decide to Haw (left), guess what? The team goes left and the lead dog ends up being dragged behind the swing dogs!

Behind the swing dogs are the team dogs. Like a human team, the team dogs are the engine of the team. On a large team there may be ten team dogs working together. So, if the team dogs are not invested, even the combined force of the lead and swing dogs will not be able to successfully direct the team.

Behind the team dogs are the wheel dogs. Wheel dogs don't have a very glorious position until something goes wrong. You see, the wheel dogs are the strongest dogs on the team and their job is to help the team cut sharp corners, pull the sled free if it becomes stuck, and, in general, keep the sled upright and out of danger.

So, the next time you are tasked to assemble a team, remember that the lead dog and the swing dogs must work as a unit, the team is more powerful than the leaders, and the strongest members may sometimes need to be in the back near the sled. Most importantly, remember that the musher is riding along mainly to interpret the terrain and communicate direction!

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