Leading Winning Teams: 5 Leadership Lessons from Mushers

On a recent sub-zero day on a frozen lake in central Minnesota, I got a chance to witness great team leadership in action.  It was a crash course in what leading winning teams is all about.  Here’s what the experience was like, and five key lessons from the leaders themselves that we can all use in leading our own teams.

Leading Winning Teams - 5 Leadership Lessons from Mushers

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Snow Dogs

Last week, plows removed the recent snowfall from the roads of Excelsior, Minnesota.  This week, trucks hauled it back in, and workers spread it all over Water Street. 

It was a move that made no sense at all unless you knew that the town was hosting a dog sled race on Saturday, and that Water Street was the starting line. 

I’m a fan of all athletes, regardless of how many legs they have, so I was looking forward to watching these teams, some of whom had come from as far as Canada and Alaska, to compete in the 40-mile Klondike Dog Derby.

Race morning temperatures hovered around zero degrees Fahrenheit; with the breezes scudding across the frozen lake race route, wind chill was easily 14 below.  That didn’t seem to matter to the dogs at the starting line, they only showed anxious enthusiasm.  Every inch the athlete, they were wiry, bright-eyed, and radiating energy from every pore.

My wife and I joined the crowd along the starting chute barriers as the race got under way.  Every two minutes a new team would line up at the start.  Once in position, it took one handler for every two dogs to keep them from starting early, or getting entangled in the towline.  The announcer counted down their start like he was launching rockets for NASA, and the crowd counted with him.


Launching Rockets

Leading Winning Teams - Klondike Holding OnAt “Go!” the handlers released their hold on the harnesses, the dogs surged ahead, and the sled popped a wheelie as the musher struggled to hang on.  Freed at last, the dog’s faces beamed with the joy of doing what they had been born and bred to do – run.  At the end of Water Street, they barreled down the boat ramp and out onto the frozen, wind-blasted wastes of Lake Minnetonka. 

After all 22 teams had started, we retreated to a diner for a warm breakfast.  It would take three to five hours for the teams to circumnavigate the lake twice, and we wanted to have the circulation back in our fingers and toes before we returned to see the teams approaching the finish.

In watching the dogs and mushers, it was clear there was a lot to glean about what it takes to get to get a team successfully across a distant finish line.  I had several thoughts of my own, but decided that it would be more interesting to hear what the mushers themselves had to say about it.

From the announcer’s interviews during the race, to posts and podcasts featuring experienced mushers, here’s what we can learn about the fine art of leading winning teams. 

See a Team of Individuals

To begin with, we may have a team, but it is one comprised of individuals.  Megan Routley, who has been mushing in Canada since 1993, stresses the importance of seeing it this way.

As the leader of the pack, I have to recognize the unique dispositions of each dog and apply different approaches and techniques to bring out the best in all of them. One size does not fit all, and they all have to be recognized as individuals. This can also be applied to humans; we all have quirks and respond to different approaches in learning.”  

Libby Riddles sees it the same way.  She was the first woman to win a 1,000-mile race called the Iditarod.  After her victory, she wrote that her dogs “were the real heroes of the race,” and that all of them “have different mental and emotional skills.  I have to figure out how to make each dog reach its best potential.”  

I have to figure out how to make each dog reach its best potential. - Libby Riddles, first woman to win the Iditarod, on team leadership Click To Tweet

Another musher, Sarah Dan, echoes this perspective:  “I need to know very well where each dog stands with me as pack leader as well as where each dog stands with every dog here at the kennel.  Each dog’s individual exercise and nutritional needs throughout different seasons and life stages will vary greatly, and I keep tabs on all that too.” 

Leading winning teams means focusing on each individual and helping them develop the skills that can make them stronger contributors.

Team Leadership is Selfless Leadership

Leading a winning team means focusing on what the team needs, not what we need.  Between starts, the commentators at our race interviewed experienced mushers, and something another Iditarod veteran said struck home. 

When the sled stops, the musher’s work really begins.” 

By that he meant that during longer races when the teams stop at check points, the dogs get to rest, but it’s the musher’s duty to provide for the needs of the team – check their paws, adjust their harnesses, get them food and water, monitor their health, and make sure they are ready to run again.  If he rests at all, it is only after he has taken care of the team.

Long-time Iditarod musher Lance Mackay puts it even more succinctly, saying “Well, they’re a great team because I eat beans and rice and they eat steak and eggs.

They’re a great team because I eat beans and rice and they eat steak and eggs. - Iditarod musher Lance Mackay Click To Tweet

Dallas Seavey, himself a five-time winner of the Iditarod, agrees.  “My biggest value is to not run myself into the ground, but to care for the team. That’s what I learned in thousand-mile racing.”

Leading winning teams means putting the needs of the team ahead of our own.

Lead Lightly, Build Trust

When it comes to the leadership climate, Alaskan musher Courtney Green thinks of it this way:

You can’t micro-manage. You need to establish guidelines as to how you want things done, but you also have to leave wiggle room for creativity. With no guidance for the dogs, you can’t expect things to run smoothly, so you need to establish those rules, guidelines and the structure [on which] your team will be built.”   

Another Alaskan mushing veteran, J.J. Neville, describes team leadership as a two-way street.  

I see myself as more of a coach learning the specific talents of my dogs and utilizing those talents to get the edge. The dogs in a way are your teachers, and after a while, you learn how they operate. They are also really receptive to your mood: if you stay positive, you will most likely have a positive team.” 

The sports analogy seems apt for Courtney Green, too: 

We are the ‘baseball manager.’ We try to make the best decisions for the dogs to succeed on the trail, and in turn we gain the trust of our dogs. The relationship that we have with our dogs is all based on trust.”

To her, leading is not about cracking the whip, either. 

Team management is also about creating a fun and positive atmosphere for the dogs. Lots of positive reinforcement, reassurance, telling them they are good dogs, and giving them belly rubs, ear scratches and treats. You have to find what motivates each dog and use that to your advantage while training.” 

We probably should refrain from rubbing the bellies of our own teammates, but you get the idea.

And here’s an insightful caution about leadership style from experienced mushers Caroline Blair-Smith and Andy Bartleet.   

Good leaders do not secure their position by making others less confident. They set the pace, show the way, and get the job done… There is sometimes a paradigm of a lead dog who dominates and intimidates the other dogs. I have never met a lead dog like that, as they would be too insecure to focus on the job. If a musher decides to keep a dog like that, the wisest option would be to put him in the back of the team where he does not have to worry about what is going on behind him.”

Good leaders do not secure their position by making others less confident. - Caroline Blair-Smith Click To Tweet

Leading winning teams means leading positively, leaving room for individual autonomy, and building trust.  Give ego the back seat.

Respond to Adversity

In leading our teams on any big undertaking, we are likely to run into trouble at some point.  How do mushers handle the challenges that come their way?  In a different podcast interview, Iditarod Champion Dallas Seavey answered that question with one word:  

“Calmly. It is not what the challenge is, it’s how the team handles the challenge. Things happen in life… things happen when you are mushing with a team. You’re gonna get caught in a blizzard, and how do you handle it? I think … any team is willing to forgive if things are done honestly and with the team’s best interest in mind.”

It is not what the challenge is, it's how the team handles the challenge. - Dallas Seavey, 5-Time Iditarod champion Click To Tweet

J.J. Neville, who mushes with his teams near Denali National Park in Alaska, agrees. 

The dogs have been teaching me patience ever since I began working with them. Patience is a key component in any problem-solving scenario. It triggers ‘clear thinking,’ making it easier to prioritize thoughts. When you’re in scary situations, your internal metronome speeds up and thoughts can jumble up and a lot of crucial mistakes can be made.” 

An example of how this can be so important came late in the 2019 Iditarod.  French musher Nicolas Petit had already dropped four dogs from his team due to fatigue.  His remaining ten dogs were wearing down, but he was leading the race by five hours. During a short break, two of his dogs began to fight, and Petit lost his cool and shouted angrily at them.  It’s not something he had ever done before, and it shocked the dogs.  It was the last straw for the tired team.  They lost confidence in him and refused to move.  Petit could only sit and watch as his commanding lead vanished and other teams passed him by.  Ultimately, he withdrew from the race. 

Leading winning teams means taking challenges in stride, responding calmly and thoughtfully to adversity, and above all, keeping our cool.

Leading Winning Teams – The Takeaway

Of course, people are much more complicated than dogs, and the tasks our teams face are far more complex than racing across a frozen lake on a chilly day.  Still, the things mushers do to keep their teams united and moving forward are not that dissimilar to what any good leader does to get the best performance out of her team. 

Leading winning teams means understanding and developing individual team members to their potential, putting the needs of the team ahead of self, leading positively, and staying calm when challenges arise. 

I’ll leave you with one more thought from Dallas Seavey about team leadership that I think translates well to the human world:

“My job is to make sure these dogs succeed…the race portion will take care of itself.  I’ve just got to take one smart step at a time and serve my team to the best of my ability…I don’t need to worry about winning.  I need to worry about the thousand little steps that will help the team do well.”

I love that.  Leading winning teams means focusing on doing the things that support our teammates. 

If we do that well, the race will take care of itself.

Lead On!

Note:  If you are interested in a deeper dive into the interface between mushing and leadership, an hour well-spent would be with the Always in Pursuit podcast interview with 5x Iditarod champion musher Dallas Seavey, hosted by Mike Burke, an exceptional leader in his own right.  

Leading Winning Teams - Klondike Dog Derby

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About the Author: Ken Downer
Ken Downer - Founder RapidStart Leadership

Ken served for 26 years in the Infantry, retiring as a Colonel.  From leading patrols in the Korean DMZ, to parachuting into the jungles of Panama, to commanding a remote outpost on the Iran-Iraq border, he has learned a lot about leadership, and has a passion for sharing that knowledge with others.  Look for his weekly posts, check out his online courses, subscribe below, or simply connect, he loves to talk about this stuff.

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