Why Your Winning Team Should Act Like Sled Dogs

Build a Thriving and Efficient Force for Productivity and Support

Part of what makes the great Iditarod race such an inspirational feat is the level of teamwork necessary at every step. 

What looks like a bunch of dogs all doing the same job is actually a multi-faceted team—trained, orchestrated, and equipped by their musher. 

A full team is made up of 16 dogs, running in 4 different positions. Every dog has a particular strength, and every musher knows exactly which dogs will play each position best. 

It takes the same analysis and social understanding to create a winning team in the workplace! 

Let’s look at each pack member in detail and how their strengths translate to your team. Keep in mind which of your own members would thrive in each position. 

Who Are Your Lead Dogs?

Lead dogs know their way on the trail without being watched and you can trust them to make decisions guiding others on the team. 

Lead dogs are smart, possess initiative, common sense, and the ability to perform even in less than ideal conditions. 

How can you tell which of your team members will execute well as a Lead? 

Some will take that initiative pretty early. But sometimes you take a leap of faith on an untested pack member— and they surprise you

Let the Leads get to know your heart, and keep them close. Learn to develop a mutual intuition and give them access where the rest of the team might not have. 

Watch for their health, so you don’t have to replace them. Make sure their “paws” are in good shape—in other words, make sure they are free to run without anything hindering their running with all of their potential. 

Stay Prepared with Swing Dogs

The best teams have members who can operate in other positions. The Lead can be a burdensome place that wears, wearies, and stresses.

So it’s natural for mushers to have their ‘leaders in waiting’ to run in the next position—which is Swing. These dogs have to be leaders in their own right, and for many, becoming that Lead dog is the next natural step. 

Swing dogs are directly behind the leader, understanding their moves and translating that to the rest of the team. 

They ‘swing’ the rest of the team behind them in turns or curves on the trail. They protect the Lead dogs from attempting a turn—only to find the rest of the team choosing not to follow! 

They are crucial to making sure everyone makes the journey and stays in sync. 

Pro tip: When Swing dogs are able to rotate with the Leads, both sets will remain fresh and the results will show. 

The Powerhouses: Your Team Dogs

Not everyone on your team will be a Lead dog. In fact, if you had a pack full of them, your mission would probably fail. Chaos would ensue with everyone trying to lead.

That’s why, settled in the middle, are Team dogs. 

They don’t have to be concerned with the stress of leading and the sled is a comfortable distance behind them. They are free to simply pull with power and run. 

These pack members make up the momentum and pull you need to get the race done. To get the project finished. To keep going towards the prize. 

Most of your Team dogs will never be Lead, and they are fine with that. But you know what? If we didn’t have them, we couldn’t do what we do. They are vital to every pack—and every business. 

We should accept that the race is not their life—and let them run from 8 to 5 as hard as they can, then clock out and leave it all. 

Steady the Sled with Wheel Dogs

Wheel dogs run at the back of the pack, but are important for the steadying element they bring the entire team.

It takes a calm and even temperament to run close to the jolting, unpredictable sled.

These dogs know how to pull with power and steadiness to maneuver the sled around turns and rough bumps. (Not all dogs can handle it, nor should they.) 

The sled is not always pretty—things like cash flow and layoffs and contingency planning. There are things in your business that not every pack member needs to see and some will be scared off by. 

Which people do you allow close to the sled of business? 

Team dogs need to run unhindered from the burdens of the sled. But remember, even Wheel dogs that are closest to the sled are still not on the sled itself.

Though Wheel dogs are seasoned confidantes, people you count on to help you turn the business, they’re not meant to be pack mules for your emotional burdens. 

Keep an eye on those boundaries, establish outside sources of emotional care and support, and you’ll keep the Wheel runners—as well as the team as a whole—healthy.

Create Your Racing Team

Of course, your people aren’t actual racing dogs. And you probably don’t wake up every morning, tie on your fur hat, and climb into a wooden sled. 

But it’s still true that how well your team performs is in direct proportion to how well you know your people and put them in the right spot on the team. 

All positions are necessary. Knowing which ones your team members naturally play and allowing them to run there not only increases their satisfaction, but can lead to better team performance in the long run. 

Building the perfect team is rarely a sprint—more like an adventure of endurance that is wildly rewarding to those who take the time to learn and truly prepare. 

As always, if I can help you maximize your team’s unique talent, drop me a note using the form below.

One Leader’s Tragic—but Avoidable—Story of Failure

The Secret to Managing Team Relationships

Captain William Bligh possessed a strong ship, crewed by forty-three talented Royal Navy seamen. He had charted a clear course and mission. 

But even in the harsh industry of 18th century sailing, Bligh had a tough reputation. 

Historical accounts tell us his crewmen described him as a stern, overbearing, and critical leader—frequently successful in achieving objectives, but harsh with punishment. 

He was focused, but either not self-aware or, more likely, he just didn’t care. 

The consequences would go down in infamy. 

Bligh could have succeeded in accomplishing the mission IF he had been an InSPIRED leader—if he understood how to manage relationships with his crew.

crew-only-ship-sign

Leadership Passion – Leadership Awareness = Mutiny!

In 1787, Bligh and his crew, along with Bligh’s comrade and leading lieutenant, Fletcher Christian, set sail from England on a ten-month journey. They were bound for Tahiti and its famous breadfruit harvests. 

They reached the island, but instead of purchasing, loading, and leaving with his precious cargo right away, Bligh allowed his men to stick around for five months without any direction or discipline. Bligh refused to understand and manage his people in ways that led to success for the whole team. 

Bligh never took his eyes off his prize—making it to the West Indies to resell the breadfruit and make a pile of cash.

His devotion to the mission, however, blinded him to wise execution. 

Rather than respect his people, he crippled them.

When he piled his men back on board The Bounty after months of rest and socialization with the Tahitian women, he expected instant results without instituting any processes. 

British historian Richard Hough notes Bligh “failed to anticipate how his company would react to the severity and austerity of life at sea … after five dissolute, hedonistic months at Tahiti.”

The problems began immediately. His men grumbled. They complained to Lieutenant Christian about leader Bligh’s strict discipline and exhausting expectations. 

Bligh had a people problem—he didn’t have trust from his crew. 

But at the core, Bligh failed managing his crew’s expectations. 

He had permitted his men to get cozy doing nothing and now had a group of men who resisted his hard-nosed efforts to get them working again. 

Bligh responded to the crew’s resistance with an even harsher crackdown. 

So only three weeks into their journey home, The Bounty’s frustrated crew, including Bligh’s comrade Fletcher Christian, slipped into their captain’s cabin, tied him up at cutlass-point—and set him adrift in the Southern Pacific. 

Pain Points of the Unaware 

Bligh’s story has become legendary through various retellings of the infamous “Mutiny on the Bounty.” 

While you probably haven’t set your boss adrift on the open sea, or been marooned by your employees, you’ve likely been tempted to do so. 

Has your boss (or have YOU) ever… 

  • Failed to manage expectations?
  • Given orders without laying out roles, processes, and goals?
  • Changed course without communicating with the crew? 
  • Gaslighted community concerns and complaints? 
  • Ignored the gap between leadership teaching style and team learning style?

Lack of awareness—of self, of team, and of direction—will always lead here one way or another. 

It comes down to a management of trust.  

When a leader fails to lead people well, the team can’t trust that their next order will lead to success. Missions will fall apart. Even talented teammates, like Bligh’s crew, will rebel. 

Through another series of adventures, Bligh eventually made his way back home. Unfortunately, he didn’t learn his lesson. His unwise and demanding leadership style led to three more mutinies.

Practical Steps for Awareness

How would others describe you and your leadership style? 

It’s an intriguing question because it causes you to pause and reconsider everything you think you know about yourself and your interaction with others. 

It means you have to think not only about what you intend by your words and actions, but how your words will be received, perceived, and experienced. 

This simple practice of awareness is a leadership key that has kept teams afloat through even the hardest storms. How to begin? Be ready to look, listen, and learn. 

  • Look at your team, your leaders, and your clients. How do they interact? What frustrates them? Where do they excel? How does the environment affect morale, productivity, creativity, etc.?
  • Listen to your team, your leaders, your clients. Conversations between team members will reveal the unsolved, chronic mistakes long before mutiny breaks out. If you’re stuck in the echo chamber of your own goals and expectations, you’ll miss these crucial moments.  
  • Learn from your team, your leaders, and your clients. The best leaders are self-aware of their own fallibility—and the room they have to grow. They look for new ideas daily to challenge their perspectives, encourage team flow, and keep the organization from stagnation.

How Will They Tell Your Story?

Everything—from how you carry yourself when you step into a room, how you listen when someone is talking, make eye contact, react to feedback, say your favorite leadership mantras, encourage or discourage—creates an experience that either inspires or exasperates. 

Unfortunately, most people lack self-awareness. They prefer to remain blissfully ignorant and blame everyone else for any problems they create.

They fail to realize how their words, actions, attitudes, and personality impact performance and relationships with the people they interact with on a daily basis. 

These leaders may know their strengths, but they overuse them to their own detriment. 

That’s not good enough if you aspire to be an InSPIRED leader.

Leadership legacies are written by you—BUT are preserved and passed down through the followers you leave behind.  

It’s too late for Captain Bligh to change his story. 

What will YOU do with yours? 

Imitation: The Easiest Path to Leadership Success without Starting from Scratch

Find Awesome and Copy It!

Inspiration is contagious. 

Oprah Winfrey started out as a small-town newsperson and became a media mogul. 

Mother Teresa served the poor in the worst conditions. 

Gandhi, Steve Jobs, Malala from Pakistan, Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King, Jr., Albert Einstein—the list goes on. 

Each of these people had drastically different personalities, values, and vision, yet they all inspired millions.

Of course, you don’t have to meet a tech giant or join the Peace Corp. to find those electric people who inspire leadership success.

One of the first people to speak deeply into my life was a guy named Jim. He put a John Maxwell book in one hand and Stephen Covey’s The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People in the other and began to teach me about leadership. As one of my first mentors, he told me he believed in me and saw amazing talent in me. 

It changed me and made me want to elevate my game.  And it made me realize—no great leaders are 100% original. 

It’s shocking, but true. 

We all model our lives after somebody. The difference is who and what do we choose to model. That decision changes everything.

mother-teresea

Inspiration Is Everywhere—If We Only Look

Inspirational people have a way of affecting our souls and changing our thinking. 

As kids, we model what we see in our parents and older siblings. Our word choices, actions, attitudes, and way of viewing the world all are shaped by what we see modeled for us. 

As adults, we encounter more and different viewpoints, we get to choose new patterns to imitate and replicate. 

So who inspires you? You may have never given it much thought. 

I encourage you to pause and consider it now. Who are your heroes? What leaders inspire you? It could be a… 

  • Teacher
  • Mentor
  • Boss
  • Coworker
  • Friend
  • Podcaster
  • Family member
  • Community figure
  • Spiritual leader
  • Author 

They could be your closest friend, but could also be someone whose perspective you value, whose work you’ve read, whose smile you pass everyday and take encouragement from. 

Great leaders have a way of bringing out the best in us. It’s the simplest way to gain your own leadership growth without starting absolutely from scratch! 

(I call it, “Copying Awesome!”)

They encourage, uplift, and inspire. Their presence inspires you to bigger and better things. You want what they “have” and are willing to listen up to find out how they got it. 

PRO Tip: Inspired From Afar

You don’t have to know someone personally to gain wisdom from them. You can engage some of the best mentors in the pages of books or via an online course or video. Use it all. 

Read voraciously, take notes, and apply what you learn to your own life to equip you for your own leadership journey.  

online-course

Key Markers of Inspiring Leadership

When you know who inspires you, you can identify the individual components that make them who they are and find things to replicate in your own life and leadership.

Some key characteristics may be:

Passion. They know why their work matters. They have a spark that comes from real engagement with their mission— if they lose their way, it always guides them back to what’s important.  

Honesty. They share ideas and opinions without fear of what their peers might think. They aren’t working in the spin room, but from a place of authenticity. 

Positivity. They don’t see failures, they see lessons. Unexpected changes are opportunities to grow. These people inspire hope, progress, and a big-picture mentality in the middle of seemingly discouraging circumstances. 

Inclusivity. They value the perspectives of others—even people who disagree with them. They actively encourage communication, creativity, and team thinking from every player. 

Wisdom. They may not be the oldest or the longest-working team member, but you can tell they don’t just bring knowledge to the table, but perspective and wisdom. 

Patience. They create space for trying, failing, and trying again. They are the listening ear you want to take frustrations and struggles to. 

Determination. When others want to quit, they dig deeper. They ask questions. They make moves. They have the grit and willpower to endure the dry spells and still reap the rewards of hard work. 

And this is only a starting list! Inspiration can strike from any direction. 

Now it’s your turn. 

As you think about leaders who’ve inspired you, ask what it is about them that speaks to you on a deep level. What is it about them that energizes you and makes you want to make them proud?

(Everyone’s life can be a lesson if you understand how to let it teach you.)

If you want to take it one powerful step forward—start a Board of Inspiration. Here’s how. 

  1. Get a posterboard, whiteboard, or personal journal. (Something with lots of room.) 
  2. Whenever you notice an encouraging, inspiring, or challenging characteristic—in anyone, friend, coworker, public figure—put it on the board! 
  3. Add books, articles, or resources that catch your attention.
  4. Add quotes that encapsulate your personal brand or mission. 
  5. Keep it somewhere you can see it! 

Imitation isn’t just the sincerest form of flattery, it’s also the quickest way to get remarkable results.

Why reinvent the wheel when so much of what you need to live an inspired life has already been modeled for you? Why start at the drawing board when leadership success is there in front of you in full color? 

Find awesome and copy it.

3 Keys to Execution Excellence in Your Organization

How to Consistently Get More Done without Losing Your Mind

You could probably study for the rest of your life—and still never finish all the books, articles,  editorials, and contradictory perspectives on how to execute with excellence. 

Thankfully you don’t have to sift through it all to find a process that just works.

One of the most helpful—and beautifully simple—leadership processes I learned was from a group of seasoned, Alaskan mushers. 

They didn’t have to get fancy or annotate. They got right to the point and shared with me something that not only works for them on the treacherous Iditarod Trail but can work for any leader—on and off the trails. 

We called it the R.A.C.E method. 

The acronym stands for Ready, Action, Checkpoint, Evolve. 

These simple but powerful steps create a process that any leader can apply—for excellent team execution again and again… and again! 

Let’s break down the first step: Ready 

In this phase, I’ve found three keys to consistent execution excellence—goals, roles, and habits. These are the what, the who, and the how of getting things done. 

To get ready, you need to know what you want to achieve, who needs to fulfill which roles, and how you will function in the day-to-day to succeed.

Goals

Setting INSPIRED goals begins with asking these questions:

  • Where do you want to end up? 
  • What is the order of the steps? 
  • Who does those steps best? 
  • How much time do you need? 
  • What are the best in your industry doing?

On the Iditarod trail, mush teams rely on trail markers to let them know how far they’ve traveled and how much longer they have to go. 

Even with these markers, some mushers have stopped fifteen minutes from the next checkpoint, because they didn’t realize how close they were to achieving the next goal. In the middle of the action, it’s difficult to tell one snowbank from another. 

The same is true for you and your team as you execute. 

With your head down in the weeds, you can lose sight of where you are. That’s why you need goals that serve as checkpoints. 

The checkpoints do two things. They help people focus on componentized goals and provide built-in celebration points along the way. 

Similar to the way the various camps on an Everest ascent provide visual cues to progress, your checkpoints let people measure progress toward achieving results.  

As you evaluate your goals in the harsh light of reality, you must consider your team’s ability to deliver on those goals in that time frame, which leads to evaluating the roles needed and who will fill those roles.

iditarod-dog-sled-race

Roles

When you’re clear on your goals and you’ve set checkpoints to monitor progress, then you can start positioning your team for maximum success by examining roles. 

I suggest you begin with these questions: 

  • Who is actually doing and delivering? 
  • Is everyone crystal clear about roles and responsibilities?
  • How does each person contribute to each step?
  • What strengths does each person contribute and where will he or she do the best work?
  • In light of the role, what weaknesses does each person have and how can these weaknesses be overcome? 
  • Do you need to add or remove people from the team? Have you first trained them to ensure removal is wise?

Sports teams are only allowed a certain number of players. You too must work within certain constraints such as budget and organizational restrictions.

 That’s why it’s so important to have the right team members in place to get the job done. 

An offensive lineman may technically be physically able to line up under center, receive the ball, and throw it to a receiver, but that’s not what he’s built for.

 In baseball, pitchers are notoriously bad hitters. That’s not why they’re on the team.

The constraints actually help the team by forcing them to put the best players in the roles where they perform the best.

 Likewise, constraints help you ensure you put the right people in the right places to win. 

That doesn’t mean no one will ever have to do a job they don’t enjoy or step out of their comfort zone, but it does mean that you position each person to be and deliver his or her best. 

(A pitcher sometimes has to bunt a run in. Football players sometimes line up differently for a trick play.)

But your team is filled with people who will excel in their areas of expertise—and propel you to excellence—if you ensure they are in the right role. 

Habits

Habits have the power to make or break your execution. As James Clear says in Atomic Habits, “You do not rise to the level of your goals, you fall to the level of your systems.” 

Nowhere is this reality more apparent than in execution. 

You can have the noblest goals but, without systems in place to achieve those goals, you’ll never get off the starting line. 

You’ll do what you’ve always done and wonder why you’re getting the same results. 

To achieve excellence through execution, you’ve got to manage your own habits and then help your team members manage theirs. It goes back to the DITLO I described earlier—what happens in the Day In The Life Of your team. 

So, how do you make the right things habitual for your team? Identify the right things to do, then make them repeatable, sustainable, and scalable. Start by answering these questions:

  • What’s the workload?
    • Does it come to you segmented or does it need to be compartmentalized? 
    • Are there trends, patterns, and timing to follow? 
  • What are the standard operating procedures (SOPs) that lead to successful execution?
    • Do they exist by design or by default? 
    • How effective are they? Are they current? 
    • Do you know the steps in the process? 
  • Do you know your strengths and struggles, efficiencies and inefficiencies?
  • What are your output expectations? 
    • Are there checkpoints to ensure you get the outcome you need and provide accountability?

Working through these steps takes time. It’s not flashy, and it’s not always fun. 

And that’s why so few do it—and they fail to deliver excellence. 

But when you have answers to these questions, you can begin to work them into your DITLO and move to other steps in the process.

business-measurement

Are you ready to RACE with Excellence?

The bottom line is this: preparation is half the battle. Getting RACE-Ready with achievable team goals, clear member roles, and systemized habits will put you three steps ahead of the competition before the starting whistle blows. 

These goals, roles, and habits make up the foundation for excellent execution. 

You can be intentional, passionate, real, have a heart to serve, and integrate well, but if you fail to execute you’ve failed to do your job.

There’s no substitution for executing with excellence. But if you work the steps with excellence, execution takes care of itself.

If you or your team needs a proven guide to help you plan well in this Ready phase, just reach out.

How Inspirational is Your Leadership Brand?

Like It or Not, You Make Branding Choices Every Single Day 

People aren’t the only forces of inspiration. Brands have the same power—one that is multiplied, even, by the number of people who come together under one missional banner. 

When Steve Jobs introduced the iPod, he sold a metal box with a microprocessor, small screen, and a clickable wheel. But what did he deliver? A thousand songs in your pocket.

That small piece of hardware has changed the way people consumed music. 

It might be retro cool now to buy albums on vinyl or even cassette, but a thousand songs in your pocket was transformational in 2001, helping pave the way for the iPhone and establish Apple as a global monolith. 

What is the big idea YOU serve to your customers? Think for a moment before you answer. 

You may think you “sell” one thing but actually deliver another. And if your sell and your deliver aren’t matching up, there may be a disconnect of inspiration. 

You can discover it again—that idea that made you tick, the goals your people signed up ready to achieve. 

But it requires asking the hard questions: How inspirational is my brand truly? And what decisions am I making everyday that set me on this course? 

Inspiring Brands can Inspire Positivity OR Negativity

Brands clearly have an identity, much like a person, but do they always inspire? And further, do they always inspire in the positive sense of the word? 

As a leader in an organization, you are a torchbearer for your brand. The things you say and do reflect on the brand.

The NFL for years has talked about the shield when referring to their logo.

They have high standards for what they want their brand to be. That’s why players get fined for wearing the wrong cleats or something that doesn’t match the uniform. 

It’s seen as disrespectful to the shield. 

The NFL has a brand code that it expects its players to live up to and abide by. Unfortunately, however, many fans feel the NFL has been inspiring in the wrong direction lately. Right or wrong, the League has paid a price for that perception. 

So whether your brand is inspiring positive or negative thoughts, you will make an impact either way with the words and actions you use to front your brand. 

Inspiring Brands Get to the Heart

Some brands, like Apple, become status symbols. Others like Tom’s Shoes and Patagonia become outlets for causes the owners and employees can support. 

Now more than ever, brands have a say in how they are perceived in the marketplace. Dove, a Unilever Skincare brand, launched a campaign several years ago called “Real Beauty.” You may remember the ads. 

It began when they “put six women in their underwear on a billboard in Times Square and challenged conventional norms of beauty imagery.”

These women weren’t famous supermodels with recognizable faces. They were women of all shapes, sizes, and skin tones and showed that Dove products were for everyone. 

It was a risky proposition that could have backfired, but according to Rob Candelino, Vice President of Brand Building for Unilever Skincare, the campaign transformed the company’s image. Candelino said that the billboard “was so groundbreaking and profoundly inspiring to women” that they were flooded with positive feedback. 

Dove used their platform as a brand to send a message to the heart of their market. 

Inspiring Brands Cause a Reaction

Think about the following brands: Zappos, Starbucks, Target, Salvation Army, Red Cross, Tesla, Google, Disney, Chick-Fil-A, Walmart, Home Depot, and Amazon.

Do they evoke a positive or negative reaction in you? 

Would you want to work with these brands? Why? Why not? 

What have these brands done that sticks in your mind and causes a reaction? What cultures do you think these brands have inside the company’s walls? 

Some are listed among the top places to work. Others are frequently defending their culture and treatment of employees. Are their employees happy, highly regarded, frustrated, exhausted? 

Now consider this: just as you have a reaction to these brands, your customers and the marketplace have a reaction to your organization’s brand. 

Your company brand is and will be known for something.

It may be the lowest cost, the highest quality, reliability, luxury, economy, sportiness, value, or humor. 

Building Your Brand Identity

Whether you lead an organization of millions, a division of thousands, or a team of a few, your leadership can inspire—or exasperate—the brand you lead. Yes, that’s right! 

Even a small team has a brand identity. 

You can decide to be an inspirational leader or an exasperating leader who shapes that brand in either direction. 

If you choose to do nothing about your leadership style, you’ll naturally become exasperating to those you lead. No one wants to follow someone who simply goes through the motions. What do you want your brand to be? 

What type of leader will you need to be in order to create a team that embodies that brand?

Get out a pen and paper before you do anything else today (it will be worth it). 

Write down at least 5 adjectives that describe your ideal leadership brand. What feelings do you want to evoke in your audience? In your coworkers? What are 5 action words that describe how your leadership will execute? 

Then put your favorites together in a missional statement.

This statement can change, it can grow, but if you can keep it in mind before every decision, delegation, project, and product, you will find it 100x easier to stay on-mission, on-brand, and powerfully inspirational, not only as an individual, but a brand. 

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