What Can we Learn about Leadership from a Team of Iditarod Mush Dogs?

Recently I had the joyful experience of going on a mush ride with a team of Iditarod huskies. For those of you who are not familiar with mushing or the Iditarod, the Iditarod is an annual 1,100-mile dog sled race from Anchorage to Nome. The dogs train all year as do their mushers. There are many dog sledding tours throughout Anchorage where I was speaking for the Alaska Association of School Business Officials (ALASBO) in Anchorage.

Knowing the story of Balto, the true story of the 1925 Diptheria epidemic in Nome, and the transporting of life-saving serum by a lead mush dog named Balto, along this trail, I thought it would be fun to take a mush ride with my family.

Here are some observations I experienced from my hour-long ride:

  • Every one of the 14 dogs is cross-trained for every position on the line.
  • When the lead dogs veer off even slightly, the swing dogs at the second position gets them back on track.
  • While running, one dog or another may drop off to the side of a narrow trail for a gulp of snow. This helps them stay cool. The rest of the line support that dog in keeping up when they return to the track.
  • A combination of males and females are chosen for their unique strengths and abilities. Males are bigger, more muscular, and faster, while the females can negotiate the finer sharp twists and turns without getting off track.
  • The dogs pace themselves as a group, running fastest when they first start out, and then staying together with the right speed for the long haul.
  • Most important, the dogs respond to positive reinforcement from the musher. When one gets off track the musher yells, “Good job, Rusty,” and the dog pops right back onto the line, feeling supported.
  • Without each individual dog, the whole team suffers. Even dogs with a lot of drive and energy need breaks. The musher gives the team free time periodically to help them rest, play and hence, stay focused.

During the actual Iditarod race, neither the dogs nor the musher knows exactly what their snow conditions will be like, as they are apt to change dramatically due to weather, global warming, etc. So the dogs leading the way need to remain alert. Part of the time they are running on open fields of ice and during other portions they are running on narrow, winding hills in which they have to make sharp turns while ascending or descending.

Can you see any similarities between mushing and leading a corporate team?