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Dog Sledding - A Team Sport That Must Have a Good Leader

I recently spent a long weekend in the Lake Louise and Banff area.  Although I’m an avid skier, I decided to forego skiing and participate in other activities the area has to offer – as the area does offer an abundance.

One such activity was Dog Sledding.  My initial attraction was simply seeing a poster in the Lake Louise Tourism shop and thought if for no other reason, then when I travel to a southern, warm destination and was asked by locals if I have ever experienced dog sledding being Canadian, I could honestly then say – “Yes! I have and it was very cool!”  Little did I know that I would gain more than simply, a fun excursion amongst a beautiful snowy backdrop and the thrill of trying something new, but see evidence of typical organizational dynamics in a unique setting!

Heading out through the town of Canmore and then up into the mountains to where the Dog Sledding experience was going to occur, was a wonderful, ride through the mountainous landscape, viewing, crystal clear lakes, unique rock formations and even 3 mountain goats!  We all arrived at a clearing where they had 6 dog sleds ready to go and a symphony of anxious dogs eager to go for their second, 2 hour run of the day.  The guides explained the various types of dogs they had for us – The Alaskan Malamutes, the Siberian Huskies – graciously referred to as the “Hollywood Dogs” as those are the ones on all the brochures and in the movies - the Alaskan Huskies, and a few others specially chosen to add to the team in various roles.  

Assembling a dog sled team involves picking leader dogs, point dogs, swing dogs, and wheel dogs. The lead dog is crucial, so the choice of these dogs are of particular interest. Another important detail is to have powerful wheel dogs to pull the sled out from the snow. Point dogs (optional) are located behind the leader dogs, swing dogs between the point and wheel dogs, and team dogs are all other dogs in between the wheel and swing dogs and are selected for their endurance, strength and speed as part of the team. In dog sledding Siberian Huskies and Alaskan Malamutes are the main types of dogs that are used for recreational sledding, because of their strength and speed and endurance, as well as their ability to withstand the cold. However, Alaskan Huskies (a mix between Siberian Huskies and Alaskan Malamutes) are also a popular dog for sled dog racing, because of their endurance, good eating habits, speed, and dedication to running even when tired.

On the day of our excursion, the guide let us know that our lead dog, Quest, was not the usual leader.   He was being put into the lead position today and he may eventually become a very good lead dog.  Susan was the usual lead dog and she was tethered alongside Quest, so that she could essentially “keep him in line.”  Throughout the ride, the guide had to keep Quest on point, and would call out to him to ensure he kept pulling forward.  It appeared his preference was to veer off to the right and check out the various trees and bushes.  Susan was often pulling him to centre and encourage him to keep moving forward.  Because of this approach the other dogs were often placed into a position to have to stop and wait, while their leader refocused and continued with the intended direction.  Now, as sled dogs, they want to run.  They need to run. They run for 2 hours a day twice a day.  So, this continuous stop and starting is not effective for the dogs nor was it the optimal customer experience.

In considering the ride, it struck me how similar the experience was to a typical scenario in many organizations. A team must have its appropriate members, executing their respective roles. The ineffectiveness of the entire team is then what stands out, if the leader is not performing at 100%. How often are organizations willing to let leaders of teams ‘learn on the job’ versus providing them the additional training and support to be able to bring up their leadership skills, sooner than later?  How often is the pace of business moving so quickly, that it is considered ‘impossible’ to conduct training and mentoring, and the leader must simply make due and keep running forward? We often see progress and potential in long term employees as leaders, and yet assume that simply the promotion and the new title, suddenly will make them the effective leader. We often are surprised that the performance is not as stellar as was assumed.

Rather than throwing new leaders into the foray of everyday work, organizations would be better served to provide the leadership training immediately.  A solid leadership program, spread over 6 months, but looked at once every two weeks, allows for the real learning and then practical use of the themes being presented in class, back into the everyday functioning of the business.  The investment of our employees is a must.  Good people are hard to find.  Once we have those good people in our sights, retaining them and supporting them to reach their maximum potential will benefit the entire organization.

As I mentioned earlier, the dogsled experience was exceptional.  However, the dynamics of having an inexperienced lead dog run the team, was not optimal for the rest of the team, and did make for a very loud ride, as the guide kept yelling to keep Quest on point. As organization leaders, we cannot simply ‘yell’ to our team leaders to stay on point.  We must be able to provide the support and formal training opportunities, in an environment conducive for success, so that our team leaders are able to run effectively all day and every day.  

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