‘Sled Dog Leadership’: What fire service leaders can learn from the Iditarod

The “Last Great Race on Earth” exemplifies the need for focused coordination between servant leaders and a motivated team

Each year, dog teams from around the world travel to Alaska to tackle the “Last Great Race on Earth.” The Iditarod Sled Dog race is a 1,000-mile test of dog-team and musher that pays homage to the 1925 act of service that saved a community from a developing diphtheria epidemic.

As leaders and operators in mission-critical teams within high-reliability organizations operating through a pandemic, we have observed these lessons first-hand. Some organizations have experienced stress, strain and success where other groups found catastrophe, infighting and breakdowns. The differences in these outcomes can be found in the people, the plans and the resiliency within the team.

The Iditarod is a race in which simply finishing is an achievement to be proud of. Mushers and dog teams tackle the challenges of the trail, working together to achieve their immense objective. To ensure success, Iditarod mushers must be the personification of expert servant leaders. The sled dogs themselves are amazing, intelligent, well-trained athletes that work beyond expectations in harsh conditions where the achievement of their mutual goals is often the only reward.

“Sled Dog Leadership” requires deft application of mission understanding, preparation, discipline, and care to find the trail to success.
“Sled Dog Leadership” requires deft application of mission understanding, preparation, discipline, and care to find the trail to success. (Photo/Alex Boyd)

The behaviors that get the most successful teams to the end of the trail safely are worthy of note. This “Sled Dog Leadership” requires deft application of mission understanding, preparation, discipline, and care to find the trail to success.

We in the fire service can apply these lessons and lead within our own teams to create a healthy culture of “sled dogs,” pulling for company and organizational success.

Mission understanding

How do you get dogs to pull a sled and musher 1,000 miles? Understanding and defining the mission at hand is the first and, arguably, most important step in any undertaking. Charles Kettering is credited with saying, “A problem well defined is half solved.” His eloquent simplification of problem-identification is at the center of a mission statement. Understanding why an effort is important helps us better understand how we should start and identify when the mission is truly making progress towards “done.”

A mission statement often simply articulates the desired outcome in a specific, measurable and easily defined way – “win the race,” for example. While eloquent in its simplicity, there are high values that are forgotten within this short and clear statement. Expanding the statement to include value-based qualifiers, such as “safely,” “ethically” and “as a team, in a manner befitting high standards of the sport,” provides more of a vision for the expectations and skills needed by the team members. Failing to define our mission with vision and values almost guarantees a difficult endeavor ahead.

Preparation: Building the team

Once the musher has a solid understanding of the undertaking, they can begin to collect the team and equipment needed. As is true in the fire service, the care taken to prepare has as much impact on success as the actions taken during the event. For the sled driver, preparation includes selecting a sled, protective equipment, team support gear, and deploying supply caches along the trail. If the preparation and attention equipment is lacking success will be elusive.

Preparation also includes selecting and training the team. Building an impressive team takes time and intentional effort from the leader. The team-selection process routinely seeks to find the “best” available candidates and then pick them “kickball-style,” with the assumption that if the group is made up of star players, it will be great.

Gathering a group of star-performers can be an outstanding way to build a team, but it requires those making the selections to identify the desired skills and predicted needs to suit the mission. Collecting a team of “standouts” often creates a group of impressive individuals in one place but can fail to establish a cohesive team. Determining the talents and the skills present in the runners can be an imprecise process that requires considerable trail-time to fully understand. Looking to Bruce Tuckman’s five stages of group development while training can help identify the real “stars” and where on the dog team they can best contribute.

A dog team has a musher, lead dogs, swing dogs, team dogs and wheel dogs.

  • Lead dogs run at the front of the line, taking commands from the musher while they keep the trail and set the team pace. The lead dog receives orders from the musher and applies them to the trail. The leaders convert the direction into action and filter the message to ensure the objective is being met. The communication and trust between the musher and lead dogs is key to the team success.
  • Swing dogs run in the second row and are the team’s best followers. The swing dogs translate the movements of the leaders into team response. These team members delay turns as appropriate to keep the rest of the team on-trail, give pace feedback and support the leaders. Swing dogs are often previous leaders or upcoming leaders learning the tracks – swing dogs are much like senior firefighters. The leader’s success depends on the swing’s support and actions. Leaders owe their success to the first followers.
  • Team dogs do the work. Most of the group are team dogs. They follow the swing dogs and fill in from the third row back to the second to last row. The power and momentum come from the team dogs. No team can be successful without the collective efforts of the team members who love the work and dream of doing nothing else.
  • The wheel dogs are the closest to the sled. These dogs are often the strongest and most attentive dogs on the team. They must be even-tempered and comfortable with the high-stress environment in front of the sled. Being directly in front of the sled, they must be able to tolerate the noise of the sled thundering down the trail behind them. They are the first to take up the slack on the haul line, they absorb the jerks and pushes from the sled, and they take the beating if the sled loses control. The wheel dogs maintain the even pull for the team and provide strong stability in the haul line. Few dogs are able to serve long in the wheel unless they have the temperament to be the calming force for the entire team. Wheel dogs are the strong silent professionals in the group who only bark for very good reasons.

The musher serves as the vision for the team and maintains general oversight and objectives. They watch the team and coordinate activities. The musher is the controlling force and ultimately responsible for the team’s safety. The musher gives the orders and sets limits to keep the team together and, as a result, they benefit from the work produced by the group. The musher must serve the team to glean the benefits.

Discipline: Staying focused on the mission

On race day, the team is ready. Discipline in training, growth and development ensures readiness. With the team performing at its peak, they come together and hit the trail to take on the challenges in front of them. The risks of bad weather, extreme cold, adverse trail conditions, hostile wildlife, and the grueling solitude loom over the 1,000 miles ahead. Teams can sometimes cover over 100 miles per day, and on other days struggle to move more than 20.

Remaining vigilant, committed, focused on the objectives, and being perceptive to the team needs is essential. Drifting, even slightly, off the tasks and purpose can have tragic consequences.

The long days, short nights, along with physical exertion of moving down the trail, will challenge every member of the team. When team members need help, others must have the discipline to step up and support them. Every sled dog must know and recognize when they need to get involved and pick up a bit extra. If the team fails to serve each other’s needs, chances at success crumble.

Care: Fostering a symbiotic relationship

The last ingredient for the team success is caring. The team must care for the mission and each other. Being committed and engaged in the goal as well as the mutual success of the team breeds passion. Genuine care for the teammates comes from the shared objective and passion for the goal.

The musher must care for every dog in the harness. If the musher allowed them to, each sled dog would run and pull the sled until they died in the harness. Running and pulling is in the DNA of every sled dog, and they are miserable unless they are allowed to do what they love. Understanding this is important for the musher; they must know the physical limits and put stops on the team for recovery.

The team is dependent upon the musher for every need – the team needs the musher to feed them, prepare bedding for them, provide protection from the cold, care for their wounds, manage their recovery periods, and provide positive reinforcement or corrective action. The musher is dependent on the dogs for transportation, work and success. This symbiotic relationship is the epitome of servant leadership.

Fire service parallels

Reflecting on the team makeup, leadership paradigm, and interdependence of the dog teams draws very clear parallels to the fire service. Observing lessons of success and failure from the trail can provide leadership lessons for all of us.

The value of servant leaders is clearly displayed in the Iditarod, and the risks associated with ineffective leadership shows in the failures. Let us all reflect on these lessons and seek to apply these ideals where we can – it can only make us better.

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