Sled Dogs in Snow

Continued from September 27th

Even careful preparation can’t account for mishaps along the way

Our plan had been for me to turn at the first trail junction and stop until I saw Will’s headlamp. So, I turned, called to the lead dog, Sakani, and collected on the relationship she and I had built skijoring: she stopped quickly. I planted the snow anchor, and keeping one hand on the sled (never, never let go of the sled) looked for Will.

I saw his light and stepped back on the runners. Then leaned over to pull the anchor and called to the lead. Silence. Nothing happened. I starred in disbelieve. The dogs were gone. Gone! My mind raced. Then recalling Will’s advice to say a little as possible and never get excited, I called twice to Sakani, to stop. My headlamp illuminated four pairs of red eyes looking back at me. Stay, Sakani, Stay.

Will came around the corner expecting me to be moving and nearly ran me down. He stopped. I said in a quiet sort of way: “We have a problem”. He, too, starred in disbelief.

Invention is paramount for issue resolution

Now here is where plans don’t count. Relationship and communication and staying connected and inventing are the way out. Will asked me to stand in front of his team: they are so loyal to him that they were likely to follow him forward. He approached my team since they knew him better than they did me. When he got to them (Sakani had stayed as I asked.) he first straightened them out – to get the antagonists on the team separated – then called me.

Quietly, slowly, I walked on the trail until I got to Sakani. Then I stepped off the trail up to my knees in unpacked snow and lead Sakani back to the sled. Again, invention mattered. If the team started to run, we were dead. The four of them were much stronger than Will and I. I picked Sakani’s front feet up so that she hopped her way back to the sled. It neutralized her strength and is the method for getting the dogs from kennel to truck – but it’s not generally used on the trail. The others followed her as I made a wide circle to avoid fights. Once back at the sled, we made the same circle again to get pointed back down the trail and found out what had happened – an old rope with a broken knot.

Review of the event

The sequence in this breakdown is important.

  1. I saw and acknowledged that something unexpected had happened.
  2. I called on my relationship with the lead.
  3. I stayed calm and quiet so to not introduce more trouble. No arm waving allowed.
  4. I called on the available expertise.
  5. As a team, we invented a solution one step at a time. We did not sit down and plan it abstractly. All of it was in action. If the action worked, we kept going, if not, we made up a new step.
  6. There was no blame anywhere.
  7. Once resolved, we got moving on the primary commitment – running.

The rest of the trip consisted of checking turns on the route, building my and Sakani’s ability to communicate about turns and enjoying the ride. Back at the truck, my job again became the steward: water, praise and a warm box on the truck for each dog.

What I learned from the sled dogs

So, what does this adventure have to do with coaching and leading based on stewardship, relationships, and faith in human organizations? If stewardship is choosing service over self-interest, then the simple acts of tending the needs of the team must be the beginning and the end. No fancy program or set of principles or strategies can replace them. Some of the acts are spoken, some are in silence. Many would be called menial.

Relationships begin before the adventure and are the basis for success. They are all there is to call on when plans come unknotted. They are strengthened by making requests and not pushing it. (When I was cutting the dogs’ toenails, I let them walk away when they wanted to, then called them back. When they’d had enough of my clumsiness, we stopped for the time being). Unless relationships have choice for all the parties, they are a dictatorship.

Faith in each other and our ability to figure out what to do next provides a foundation for venturing into the unknown. Each time we make a change, take on a new project, or have a meeting is a venture into unknown territory. Since there is no guarantee, it is an act of faith.

When we call to the team we are making an invitation. If they don’t accept it, we must start once again by doing the simple tending. I’m very clear that humans and dogs aren’t the same and business is not exactly the same as going for a sled ride, but don’t we sometimes make assumptions about our relationships with people that even a dog wouldn’t accept?

Planning for perfection cannot replace strong relationships

As for “flawless”, in my experience planning for perfection is a formula for falling short. Strong relationships between skilled partners and exercising faith in each other over and over during action are as close to flawlessness as we’re going to get – or need to be.

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