Leader of the Pack

I thought I knew what a good leader was until I went on a dog sledding bucket list adventure with my son and niece this past weekend. It never ceases to amaze me what I learn about others and myself when I step out of my comfort zone and try something new. It is almost always enjoyable and I usually learn a thing or two.

I thought a good leader was strong physically, mentally sharp and willing to make decisions for others. Boy was I underestimating the job!

What I learned is that a really good leader doesn’t have to be the strongest physically of the group, he/she doesn’t have to always be the smartest in the group either. While physical and mental characteristics all play a role, often, there is something else going on behind the scenes that makes all the difference in the world.

I guess dog sledding is no different. What I learned is that dog sledding could not happen with just one or two of the dogs. The only way these animals were going to pull a sled with two grown adults in it up a steep hill on snow and ice was if they worked together as a team. Each dog played a special and intricate roll in the success of the journey. Life is a lot like this too. We do not operate as a vacuum in this world; we rely on friends and family, spouses and coworkers to get the job done of life. Each of us has an important roll on the many different teams we are a part of in life.

Before I went on this little adventure I naively thought the lead dog must be the only one in charge and that he/she would be the physically strongest and mentally the sharpest. Instead, I learned that the lead dogs are special, but more because they have some innate gift that allows them to be willing to go into the unchartered waters ahead of the pack. Realize that pack dogs like to stay in a pack. They like to follow each other. It takes a special dog that is willing to be the “first in line” so to speak -to lead.

The way it was explained to us is that dogs by nature like to follow each other and the lead dog must be willing to go first. This is counter intuitive for Husky dogs because when they are in front they feel like they are running away from the pack, not necessarily leading it. Hmmmm. Light bulb moment for me. It is funny how this happens! The times in my life that I have taken on a leadership role were very scary. I never knew if I was making the right decision, or if I was heading the group in the correct direction. I remember questioning if I was doing the right thing or if anyone would actually follow me. Leadership can be a very scary.

Humans feel this way too. I think. When you are following what everyone else in the word is doing. it is easy to have confidence. You think to yourself I must be going in the right direction because this is what everyone says I should be doing or this is what everyone else is trying to do him or herself. You try to catch the person in front of you. You try not to fall behind. You don’t veer off the beaten path very far. Often, if we find ourselves following the person in front of us and pushing ourselves to stay ahead of the person behind us, we end up losing sight of where we are going and why we are going there in the first place. If you are in the middle of the pack you can’t see the scenery ahead of you. All you see is the tail end of whoever is in front of you. You feel pressure to keep up the pace and stay in line.

Compare this to being the dog at the end of the line. This guy doesn’t have to think for himself at all. He merely goes where they have gone before him. This mindlessness allows us to focus more on our physical strengths. If I don’t have to use my mind to make all my own decisions, I can rely more on my muscles to just get the job done. The dogs that pull these sleds are much the same. Our guide personally introduced us to each of the eight dogs on our team. He shared with us their names, their personalities, and why they held the place on the team they held. The two dogs that were the last pair were referred to as the “meatheads” in fact, one of them was unable to see out of both eyes so he “sensed where he should go” and often banged into the female to his left because of his poor eyesight. This guy mainly went on feel and just followed the energy in front of him.

I thought the “alpha” dog would be a lead dog but I realized this is not necessarily true. Alpha dogs are so busy trying to keep everyone else in line that they often don’t watch the trail ahead and make good decisions. Looking back and trying to correct all the dogs behind him/her prevent the alpha dog from truly acting as a leader. While these dogs are strong physically and mentally, they spend too much energy trying to control those around them. Another light bulb moment…. hmmm. The real gifted leaders were the ones who were able to just make a decision and head in that direction. They were confident they were on the right path, at the right pace, heading in the right direction. They understood that the rest would fall into place behind them, and that they did not need to control everything that went on behind them. They also inherently understood that for this risk they would be rewarded with the most beautiful scenery and that they would get to experience all the joys that lay ahead on the trail. I think they also knew they would not always make the correct decision. As the brake man on one run I had to jump off the sled because the dogs cut the turn too sharp and the sled almost collided with the tree.

The true leaders of the pack were the dogs with heart and courage. They were willing to feel like they were running away from the pack, a somewhat scary feeling at times I am sure, and they were willing to focus only on what lies ahead on the trail. They did not waste any time or energy trying to control others behind them and they were not willing to just blindly follow the decisions of others. They were willing to put it all out there and make the decisions for the group. They set the pace and decided how fast to take the twists and turns on the trail, they were the ones willing to encounter the obstacles first, and face the unknown challenges that lie ahead. They were willing to take a stand and make a decision, and then they didn’t look back. The real beauty of this is that while it must have felt counter-intuitive and more than a bit scary they sure did enjoy the best view and they got to see the sunset in the trees on the trail and feel the fresh powder snow beneath their feet. I think this was a well-deserved benefit.

My job on the adventure was to take turns serving as the break man on the sled and correct the dogs when the leader was making a poor decision, like taking a corner too fast. It was up to me as the brakeman to help push the sled and the team up the most difficult hills and to encourage the dogs when the hill seemed too high to conquer. When I took my turn riding on the sled I had to relinquish all control to the dogs in front of me and the brakeman behind me. I did not get to make any of the decisions. I found riding in the sled the most difficult of all. It is hard to give up all control on the journey.

Personally I decided that I don’t like blindly following along in this world letting others make all the decisions for me but it is scary to be willing to be the lead dog and run away from the pack. Sometimes it is nice to just be inbetween.

I also realized that good leaders are the ones who are willing to step back and let someone else lead every now and then recognizing that we all have off days and would just rather follow along that take all the risks.

Dog sledding was really cool and I learned far more than I thought I would. I think that is the sign of a grand adventure.

So my friend, I ask you “what’s next on your list?’

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