The Heart of my Leadership

The reason I am drawn to use ‘Iditarod’ as a metaphor for leadership is that I love the story of what the race commemorates. It embodies a majority of how I approach life and business. It’s one of the summary points in Chapter 9 of the book: “Life is lived best when it’s lived for others.”

In Late January, 1925, Dr. Curtis Welch had come to the realization that what he was facing a deadly outbreak of Diphtheria in the village of Nome, Alaska. Particularly hit hard were the young people and survival hinged on getting the serum. We’ll pick the rest up from the introduction in the book:

Finally, – the only serum in Alaska was found.

Where? How many miles? His heart sunk. 1000 miles away? 1000 miles of frozen, Alaskan wilderness away.

The serum was in the care of Dr. J.B. Beeson at the Alaska Railroad Hospital in Anchorage!

How fast can it be transported? The usual method for transportation during the summer months was steamship, but the sea had iced in the town since October and it wouldn’t thaw until June. What about planes? Would someone be so daring as to fly during these conditions and attempt the landing? The only two available planes had been disassembled and neither had ever flown in winter. The call for help reached the Governor and the request for an alternate route was approved. The Alaskan Railroad ferried the medicine more than 250 miles north to Nenana. But from that point on, the traveling was treacherous.

Just before Midnight, January 27, with the clock ticking, the serum and the survival of the town was transferred into the hands of rugged men and their teams of sled dogs who would race across some of the most brutal terrain and the harshest conditions that mother nature has to offer.

When the first musher left Nenana, the temperature reportedly hovered at 50 below zero. The volunteer mushers transferred this “Baton of Life” 18 times – until it reached the hands of Leonhard Seppala and his lead dog, Togo, considered by many to be the true heroes of the run. Together they covered the most hazardous stretch of the route, and carried the serum farther than any other team.

The twentieth and final transfer was made and, according to legend, the serum was nearly lost when a huge gust of wind toppled the sled of this final musher. The musher frantically dug the serum out of the snow with his bare hands, righted his sled and continued on. February 2 at 5:30 a.m., just five days and seven hours after leaving Nenana, the Norwegian Gunnar Kaasen and his lead dog Balto arrived on Front Street in Nome.

Salvation came through Courage, Skill, Teamwork, and Perseverance!

I would add to that – that salvation came to Nome because a group of people were willing to give – to sacrifice time out of their lives – and danger to their lives – for the sake of others.

Again, it’s one of my life mottos and one of the legacy pieces that I want to leave as my mark on this earth – “He was a person that was a giver. He gave more than he received. He served others.”

Can we end one week and start the next thinking about serving? Thinking about giving? Thinking about charity? Where can we add value this week?

“Life is lived best when it’s lived for others.”

Leaders need courage

Whether you’re facing down 1100 miles of frozen tundra, a hostile business climate, or even a 360 peer review – courage is critical.

In every leader’s day to day there are times when we would prefer not to be as courageous as we need to be. We don’t always want to face the challenges in front of us, admit weaknesses (or areas needing improvement) in our leadership skill set, or stare down adversity raging like a storm off the Bering Sea – but if we are to continue to be the leader – it’s part of our job description.

Great Leaders understand that without risk there can be no reward.

There will always be risk – in business, in life, in Iditarod – Leaders know, understand and process this accordingly. It’s not that leaders lack fear – the fear is still there – it’s what you do with the fear and how you process it that makes the difference. Courage isn’t an absence of fear. It’s doing what you’re afraid to do. It’s pushing past the fear to a place of internal power – to leave the last checkpoint and ‘Mush off the Map!’ Think about it – if there were no fear – you wouldn’t need courage..

I heard of a leader that illustrated this point by handing his people 3 pieces of paper with choices on them.

  1. ‘Try and succeed’
  2. ‘Try and potentially fail’
  3. ‘Don’t try and therefore never fail’

Leaders value action – and to ‘not try’ is not an option for us if we want to succeed. Courage is looking at all the options, regardless of how unpleasant, making the best decision at the time, and starting.

Remember: just because you start down a path – doesn’t mean that you can’t change – that you must stay on that path forever. If you start down a path and it’s not working – see what needs to be changed and act on that, as well.

To increase your courage:

  • Do the homework. There is no substitute for having as much of the known knowledge as possible. Leaders need to make informed decisions and that comes from having the right information – the good and the bad.
  • Have open, honest discussions with rigorous debate about the appropriate course of action – when the mission or change is critical – this is not the time to hold back opinions – allow the debate to get spirited within the right boundaries.
  • Gain wise counsel. Counsel can come from many sources – but needs to come from the right sources. You can take information from many – but limit counsel to the right people.
  • Best Case / Worst Case. Play out both scenarios and weigh the cost of each – if you can live with the worst case – go for it!
  • Act – you have to act – you have to move and look for the very next logical step and take it! Then look for the next step and take it – before long you’ll be moving in the direction of success. Remember – it’s much easier to turn a moving sled than one that is stopped and anchored!
  • Evaluate – look back at this section in the RACE postings – evaluate at regular intervals and respond accordingly!

Fear will be present. As leaders we accept this. Criticism will always be present – we must accept this, too. If you weren’t attempting something great – people would not have cause to criticize.

If I were beside you today – I would encourage you that you can succeed – walk it out step by step – checkpoint by checkpoint – you’ll get there. And when you do – we’ll have a drink in the lodge together and celebrate!