We’ve all heard the saying, “If you’re not the lead dog, the view never changes.” But I’ve discovered that the true leader of the team isn’t the lead dog. The ultimate leader is back in the sled, they are the one with the vision and execution strategy. This doesn’t mean that there aren’t times when the leader is up front running with his/her lead dogs and showing them the way, it simply means that being a great leader is about servant leadership.
The race for which the Iditarod began was first run back in 1925. It was a mission to get life-saving serum from Anchorage to Nome in the dead of the Alaskan winter. It took innovative thinking as well as courageous leaders to forge the path and make history across dangerous terrain.
In 2008 I embarked upon my own Iditarod adventure. It was nearly 4700 miles to get there. 6 days of hard travel and 8 cities from the warm Fort Worth winter to the arid Arizona climate to the northwest – a tough but rewarding week of speaking to conference rooms full of executives from a couple of dozen different companies about leadership and growing their personal influence. From Portland, I flew back through Seattle to Anchorage and all the way to frozen region of Kotzebue and, finally, to my destination. The exhaustion had turned to exhilaration as I had made it to Nome, Alaska and was in the beginnings of experiencing what I had set out to do.
To Mush a team of dogs – to learn and experience a very small slice of what the Iditarod participants experience. I had walked Front Street, inspected the finish line, and looked out over the frozen Bering Sea. Elated, the next day I rendezvoused with Nils – the musher who would become my teacher / mentor / sensei for the week. His wife Diana was remarkable in her own right and their daughter Lizzie prancing around as the princess of her castle! We talked for a while about this book and spent some great time at their home – walking through the kennel and getting to know his family – human and canine alike. When he asked if I was ready to go for a sled ride I felt like kid – being asked by my uncle if I wanted to go for a motorcycle ride – YEAH!
The feelings of being an excited kid quickly changed to feeling like a child when the first order of business was to put me IN the sled. With Nils behind, I felt like a 12 year old that for some reason was having to ride in a child’s stroller, wrapped in a couple of layers and zipped in – he and Diana, both had made sure that I was wearing the proper attire to not bring harm upon myself as a green horn to the Alaskan winter wilderness.
I had quoted the statement for years – that if you’re not the lead dog the view never changes – and now I am here to tell you that the view DOESN’T change – and neither does the SMELL! Being in that sled put me right in the line of both sight and smell – front row center!
One of the minor details that Nils had left out was that the dogs get so excited to run and pull that the excitement soon turns to the need to use the restroom – just as soon as they start running!
Further, they had been in Anchorage a week or 2 earlier and at race events – if there are any teams that happen to have a bit of sickness – they quickly pass the bug to other teams and it takes a few weeks and some medication to remedy the effects.
As we took off like a shot out of the kennel area and circled the house before heading out to open trail – the excitement transitioned in to their biological needs and I quickly wondered if maybe I should have purchased a pair of sunglasses that came with windshield wipers and a gas mask! Small price to pay, I guess, for living the dream!
The next trip out, I did get a sled of my own, however, it was tethered to Nils – so I could get the feel of the sled and riding on the runners – without actually being in charge or trusted with a team! After a while – being the person that I am – I was back behind Nils experimenting with my sled – trying to see how it would react to different weight changes – to different balancing acts – trying to equate it to my experience of wake boarding and tubing behind boats back in Texas. It wasn’t – and I soon flipped my sled on a turn and planted face first into the snow as we took the loop to start heading back home!
The rest of the journey back to the house was more tame…