Sled Dogs in Snow

Imagine coaching a group of highly committed individuals who have worked together for a long time. They know the territory better than you do and are more at home in the particular business environment than you are. What’s more, they are so skilled at their craft that they work from an instinct that is not immediately obvious. They are alert to changes in the situation that you miss entirely. If that isn’t enough, they know whom the real movers and shakers are in the organization and don’t pay much attention to people who wave their arms a lot without effect.

I’ve experienced this as a manager, consultant and coach, but the scene described above did not occur with other people. It happened in Calgary, Alberta, with sled dogs while visiting Will Black, who teaches leadership to people by placing them in unfamiliar environments. The experience exposed me to a culture rich in relationships, purpose, invitation, and faith. And it exposed me to my own needs for control.

A Leader Isn’t Always In Front

There’s an old saying, perhaps from China, that if you want to be a leader, find a parade and get in front. Part of the difficulty of working with sled dogs is that there’s a fast moving parade, but the human is at the back of it, being dragged through the snow. It was certainly the most challenging “coaching” engagement I’ve had and it brought new meaning to the term “flawless”.

Like most engagements, this one had several phases: the test ride, the plan, relationships, the jump to action and review. The test ride was like riding in a flight simulator – it’s safe with a taste of the real thing. The plan was just that – what we planned to do. Relationships had to be formed in advance since there would be no time once we jumped to action. The jump to action separated talk from the real thing. The review anchored what I had learned so I could use it again.

The Test Ride

Before going solo with a team of dogs, I needed to get a feel for the team and the medium. So Will took me out with nine dogs. He was the driver and I was freight. Each dog, he said, produced a force of 300 pounds. Nine dogs deliver 2700 pounds of thrust – enough so that the “driver” cannot physically control the team.

Too Much Talk Can Lead to Confusion

My first lesson was to be quiet and watch. How many times do we think as leaders and coaches that we have to say a lot to show we’re in charge? In this case, too much talking confuses the team and leads to their ignoring what the leader says– a phenomenon that also happens in our human teams. After a quiet ride, Will offered me the chance to ride on the sled’s runners. I was to continue to stay silent and let him do the talking because the team knew his voice – I was a stranger. An experience I had in a large manufacturing company came to mind, where managers were reassigned regularly as if they were interchangeable parts. Then management wondered why no one listened.

Keep Your Team Engaged

The next part of practice was a sport called skijoring. Whoever invented it is fortunately not available to me. It involved my body being hitched to two dogs while my feet were locked into cross country skis. I am not a novice at cross county, but after spending the first hour being dragged on my face, I wanted a change. This lesson called me to balance between saying the word “stay”, and keeping the team interested in the project and my voice. They looked frequently for Will and the other dogs (who were off having fun) until I demanded stopping.

Agree On Some Ground Rules

What was the coaching lesson? Go out on a practice run to see what the team does when it’s working well – before intervening. Get into their medium AND insist on a few ground rules. Say what you mean – and then be quiet. When I was tired of being on my face, I first worked only on the rules of stopping and staying stopped. I put my skis across the trail and held them there until all was quiet. I practiced getting up without being pulled forward. Then, and only then, I said “hike” – quietly was enough. I’m not advocating for coaches to be rule makers, only that we must come to some agreements about language and ground rules before doing substantive work.

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This article was written by Samuel P. Magill and was originally printed in Flawless Consulting Field Guide and Companion by Peter Block