Sled Dogs in Snow

Continued from September 13th

Planning is not the same as action

To add to the next phase of adventure, Will arranged a midnight outing with light snow thrown in for extra fun. The first thing I noticed was that all the preparation and planning had only a vague correspondence to really doing it; planning was safe, a concept, an ideal, easy, no strain on anybody. A very low level of commitment.

In our fast-paced organizations, I sometimes see enormous attention to planning as if it were the real thing. That’s not to say that it isn’t important, just not the same. Furthermore, with an eager team who knows what they are doing, long planning becomes distracting. It’s as though the team says, “Get on with it or let us go home. Being in this harness is fine as long as we’re doing something!” The more fun the better; and, in this case, better means running. Besides, if we’re going into unknown territory, planning simply can’t be perfect.

Really get to know your team

Before this whole system went into action, there were a few more details. Since the dogs were more skilled than I, it was important to take time to get to know them before expecting cooperation. In this case getting to know each other simply meant spending time together doing the simple tasks of living. Literally it meant cleaning the yard where they’re kept, feeding them, and clipping their toe nails. For dogs, the latter is a very intimate act and, if allowed to do it, I was clearly making progress. It was their choice!

The simple relationship created by simple acts of service and time spent hanging out together skijoring provided a crucial foundation. In an organization where I managed a group of consultants I once helped with a simple task of opening hundreds of envelopes from 360 degree feedback forms. While doing it my boss walked in and chastised me for wasting my time. The task was beneath my position, she said. Well, so was scooping up dog litter, but when push came to shove the relationship I built made all the difference in the world.

Making the leap into action

There comes a moment when it’s time to move from planning to action. During the harnessing phase, a stout rope holds the sled and dogs to a full size pickup. To move out, one stands on the sled’s runners and pulls a trigger release. The dogs know what’s coming and bark, howl and jump in a frenzy of anticipation.

I stepped on the runners, grabbed the release trigger, and …stepped off. My body seemed to know that once I released the sled, I was no longer in charge. So, I went unconsciously to Will to ask a question. Any question would do; I didn’t even have one.

Embrace the edge

This is the edge of faith. Faith in my teacher, faith in the dogs, faith in the snow on the ground and the weather, faith in myself and ultimately faith in the relationship I had with the dogs. This is the edge of action – a different domain in which I’m really along for the ride into their territory. My leadership was not of my own doing alone – it would have to be more like a dance with a partner who knows the steps better than I. I’ve also experienced this as the edge of coaching when the client takes over. Some coaches call it leading from behind. Perhaps our job is merely to release the team. If we don’t let go, the team is ever dependent on our wisdom, which is inadequate for them to live on.

High performance teams have an innate need to perform

Will advised me to either get on and go or put the dogs in the truck. The greatest number of fights occurs when the dogs are hooked up and anchored. They are committed to work, i.e. running. And when they don’t get to do it they turn to their next commitment: settling who’s in charge among them – and the cost to the loser and winner is high. How often do we create teams of capable people, only to let them sit idle with vague purposes and tasks? Or, worse yet, occupy their time in areas to which they are not committed? (I think of a parallel here of people who attend staff meetings in which nothing important happens – no tooth and claw but lots of whining).

At last, I pulled the release, said my Hail Mary’s and flew down the dark trail. It was exhilarating! Snow flying, dogs barking briefly, then silence except for my quiet epithets.

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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