During my family’s first winter in Alaska, we went to the town of Willow to watch the official start of the Iditarod, the world famous sled dog race, which lasts nine to fifteen days, covering over a thousand miles from Willow to Nome. Teams consisting of one man and up to 16 dogs endure whiteout conditions, sub-zero temperatures and gale force winds. Wind chill temperatures can get as low as -100 degrees F.
The marshaling area where mushers get their teams prepared before their turn to start the race is one of the most noisy, chaotic places I’ve ever seen. As the dogs are getting clipped in to their lines, waiting for their turn to start the race, they are fussing, howling, jumping, and nipping at each other constantly. It’s as if they can’t stand holding still.
We walked a little down the trail to see the dog teams pass by as they were on their way. The contrast was striking. The dogs were silent, focused on the mission they had trained for, tongues flailing, pulling with all their might.
I couldn’t help but notice the difference between the teams standing around before the race and the teams on the trail focused on their mission. The only sound from the teams on the trail was the occasional command of their musher.
We’ve been addressing in previous blogs what it takes for great leaders to earn the right to lead. They must commit to investing in more leaders, not to just having more followers. They must be accessible role models, inviting others to get close to them. And they must simplify what they do so that others can imitate them.
But all of these strategies for being highly follow-able are not ends in themselves. They are a means to an important end. That is to accomplish the mission that the team was built for.
It’s been proven over and over that teams are most engaged in and fulfilled by their work when they are led by a trusted leader on a mission that challenges them to be and do more than they thought they could.
People often criticize the Iditarod for being cruel to the dogs. But it’s been proven repeatedly that the dogs absolutely love to run this race despite the harsh conditions. We sometimes mistakenly think that we must make people’s work as easy as possible for them if we are to expect good results. Nothing could be further from the truth. Great leaders challenge their followers to become more than they thought they could be. That’s key to a leader’s role of making more leaders. That’s why great leaders spend so much energy earning their teams trust.
One thing that’s true of every champion dog musher is they LOVE their dogs, and their dogs know it! If our followers know how much we care about them and trust our leadership, then they are ready to go with us on the toughest missions.
So set challenging goals for your team. If you’ve given them a lot of yourself, then ask for a lot in return. Make increasing their skills, responsibilities and authorities part of your business growth strategy. Most of your team will rise to the challenge, and your whole team will be stronger.
Jay Pullins has been leading and developing leaders in a variety of settings for over 30 years. He has a diverse background as a leadership coach, military officer, an appointed state official, and executive leader of Alaska's largest church. Jay has trained over 1,400 leaders in the last five years, from Alaska to Southern California, in various fields from universities to military, construction, product distribution, manufacturing, telecommunications, churches, banks, casinos, and a railroad.