Lead Dogs, Born or Made?


In my last article, “Mushing the Iditarod Trail” I provided a little background on the sport of dog sled racing.    I mentioned last time the amazing Alaskan Husky – the dog of choice for dog sled racing because of their inbred willingness and ability to run . . . far, fast and for a long while.  Most will run all day if you let them, and teams of 12 dogs have been known to pull 2500 lbs (1100 KG) of sled, supplies and musher up sides of mountains!

The Alaskan Husky is not even a formal breed, but are genetically “mutts” – likely to be combinations of Siberian Huskies, Alaskan Malamutes, or Canadian or American Inuit Dogs.  These modern sled dogs are bred for their ability to run, their strength and to work well in a team.   Most people see them as friendly and generally smart.   They are trained to be good eaters – eating well and fast to replace the 10,000 calories they can burn per day during a grueling long distance race like the Iditarod.   These combined traits produce the animals needed for the arduous back country of the Alaskan wilderness.

So what does this have to do with leadership?

I have written often about important leadership traits and skills.   XLC believes most of which can be learned, practiced and improved upon over time.   These skills aren’t acquired easily perhaps, but like golf, I think most of us can get better at it if we put some effort into it.  In fact, this is a major portion of what XLC’s business is about.

However, with dogs, as with people, there comes along (every once in a while) a creature that has a born natural talent for leadership.   They don’t need much if any training.  They seem to have an innate ability that is amazing to behold.   Beings like this are one of life’s interesting wonders.     In dog sled racing there are certain dogs that possess these unique leadership abilities and become the so-called “lead dogs” – perhaps the mushers most treasured possession.  They are combinations of the star quarterback on a football team, first chair in a symphony orchestra, or assistant manager in business all rolled into one.

Let me tell you the story of Hickory, a husky pup that Jeff King acquired when he was nearly broke and needed to expand his own sled dog team.  He traded a friend 100 lbs (45 Kg) of outdated ground beef for the pup he named Hickory due to his brown color.

Jeff liked the amiable little guy from the start.   Hickory immediately became close friends of the family cat, and was boundless in his curiosity and ability to get into mischief.  As the bond between Jeff and Hickory grew, Jeff brought him to ride in the sled when he went on training runs.  Hickory took to it, first running back and forth on the sled watching the dogs in front.  Then one day he leapt off the sled, to run alongside, then jumping back on board putting his feet on the tow line as if a four-legged version of tightrope walker Karl Wallenda.   He seemed fearless, and mesmerized by this new experience.

When Hickory became old and strong enough, he was given his chance as lead dog, and continually surprised Jeff with his incredible abilities.

A lead dog has to listen to instructions from the musher, but this one seemed to be able to improvise, and lead by his own instinct and initiative —  as if the best interests of the team were always paramount.  There is a telling photograph on pages 104 and 105 of King’s book Cold Hands Warm Heart.   You can see the sled and team running into the face of driving wind as they are crossing a frozen lake.  In spite of Jeff’s commands to move straight ahead, you can see Hickory stretching his tow line out hard to the left, as he is trying to steer the team so they don’t run headlong into the biting wind – but zig-zag across the ice like a tacking sailboat.

The ability to think for himself while understanding the musher’s intent, while adapting in ways that protect the team is impressive.  Over time, both Jeff and Hickory came to deepen the trust they had in each other and made an impressive leadership team.

When mushers are asked about what they are looking for in a lead dog they all start with the usual elements.    (As you read this list ask yourself if it also applies to people you want to hire at work).

  • They need to be smart.
  • They have to be strong. (Think resilience in the case of humans.)
  • They must be dependable.
  • They need to have speed. (They must lead by example, the other dogs will never run faster  than the one in front.)
  • It helps if they are good eaters. (For humans – we need the ability to nourish our minds AND bodies),  and
  • It’s imperative that they are tough mentally.

“While all of those characteristics are invaluable”, said King, “none of them amount too much without one key trait: desire.”  They need the self-confidence and drive to face adversity, especially when things are getting tough or at critical times in a race when the team has to find reserves of energy at the end of an already long day.

As with human leaders, lead dogs need to have an attitude that influences how the other dogs around tend to behave.  “There’s just something peppy about a lead dog’s personality,” remarks Susan Butcher, another successful dog musher.       These may be things that are hard to define, but we all recognize it when we see it . . . that positivity that can be infectious to all others.

“They have that spunk,” continues Susan. “You can just see … they just have that energy. They run around in circles when their neighbor doesn’t. They show you who they are.”

How does this relate to humans?

Now it seems to us that sometimes we see people who are a lot like Hickory. They have that “spunk,” boundless energy and an inherent belief that anything can be accomplished.   The only thing we need is the ability to recognize it and the decision to immediately give that person the ability to utilize their God-given talent to the best of their ability.

I am sorry to say that some managers I have seen feel threatened when they encounter a subordinate with Hickory-like natural ability.   The only right reaction is to count your blessings, and figure out how you can best work with your prodigy.

So in the end, some great leaders are born.   If you see these take advantage of the good fortune.  In the case of your remaining leadership talent pool, take a lesson from the mushers in Alaska — coach, train, serve, develop, and yes, even love them.  Help them unleash their best potential.

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