Iditarod Lesson: If You’re Not Growing, You’re Dying

ID 110356951 © Nikovfrmoto |

Out on the Iditarod trail, you will find the most talented mushers and teams in the world. But they didn’t walk into the sport as champions.

No, it required a process. It required a commitment to growth—at the personal and professional level.

Whether you’re an Alaskan musher or an entrepreneur, the highest rates of leadership satisfaction occur where people stretch themselves to learn or achieve something new. (I know that’s true for me!)

Growth doesn’t just happen—even for the talented. To find out if you are setting yourself up for meaningful growth, consider these 3 “trail necessities.”

1. Growth Requires Input

On the trail, as the winter snow melts away, new life emerges—fresh spring vegetation, running water, and another year of preparation. Even after the race ends, mushers begin creating new plans and identifying new growth opportunities for themselves and their teams.

The team that contents itself by remaining the same between races will start well behind every other pack next year.

When I believe that I’ve already “made it,” my creativity and curiosity deteriorate every time. On the other hand, new input always generates fresh energy.

Favorite inputs of mine include listening to audiobooks, podcasts, and engaging personal mentors. Whenever I get the chance to read even a couple chapters of a new book, I feel rebooted.

Let the hunger for growth fuel the fire of passion for your life and business. Today, it’s easier than ever to instantly find something to read, something to hear,  something to learn, somewhere to grow. So there is no excuse for standing still.

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2. Growth Requires a Reason

Everyone improves for different reasons—but without a reason, you’ll be headed nowhere fast.

On the Iditarod trail, survival, competition, and the fulfillment of a lifetime of training keep the team on task. When I first started in leadership,  I was motivated to grow because I knew enough to know that I didn’t know enough.

I needed those experiences that brought me face-to-face with personal and professional shortcomings. Case in point: At age 18, I was #1 in sales for my department. So when the department management position became available, they turned to me to fill it.

I called my first manager’s meeting for the next Saturday with the agenda to teach everyone else in the department how to sell better.

No one showed up for the meeting. The pain of that event caused me to want to grow and learn.

Even after years of experience, I’m still growing and learning to extend my personal potential. Potential isn’t a destination; it’s the constant inspiration to keep moving.

There are still better ways to do what I do—better ways to lead, teach, speak, coach, facilitate, etc.

The trail of leadership is a lifetime journey. Whatever reason keeps you on the move—pain, potential, or even curiosity— write it down, post it up, keep it where you can always remember to stay inspired.

3. Growth Requires Accountability

On dog sled teams, when you’re strapped in with 15 other dogs and a musher, each member of the pack is encouraged to give their best work. None want to let the rest of the team down, because the consequences of checking out will affect more than themselves.

Keep an eye on that pressure. Sometimes it can crush, but in the right environment, it creates a “7th gear” of performance that the whole team benefits from. In the past I’ve used elements like:

  • Accountability partners that check in regularly
  • Committing to leading a team
  • Starting a club where you have to show up
  • Setting personal milestones or deadlines

It can be daunting to purposefully put yourself in a place of growth. But on the days where you would rather quit, that structure keeps you moving. And all movement forward is a lesson learned.

Launch today and find something or someone to commit to that will “harness” you into growth mode.

ID 92755935 © Prochasson Frederic |

Share Your Growth

For years, now stretching into decades, I have always come back to this principle of intentional growth.

I have had the great fortune of surrounding myself with people of a similar mindset who encouraged me, “If you will pour knowledge into yourself; if you will purpose to fill yourself with great knowledge, then you will become an incredible leader.”

Even if I am facing in the wrong direction and can only turn one degree each day—in 6 months, I can turn 180 degrees and be back on the right track!

I’d love to hear about your growth experiences. Feel free to share with the rest of us your favorite method for learning and growth. You never know when your comment will be the one that touches someone else.

Thanks for being a part of the leadership adventure! See you out on the trail!

3 Tips to Communicate with Your Team (Like an Iditarod Master Musher)

Those who can communicate well can change the world. (And often do!) It’s a trend you can track in every industry—from mainstream to niche market.

While spending weeks in the Alaskan wilderness with veteran Iditarod mushers and their dog teams, I discovered invaluable lessons about communication.  

Those who learn to shape their message, effectively transfer it, and motivate others to action are the ones who often rise in leadership within an organization.  

They become the team’s Musher!

Corporate “mushers” that have difficulty communicating lose support for existing initiatives, rarely gain support for new initiatives, and are left with only their title or positional power to force team engagement.

So, straight from the pack professionals, here are three communication tips (and one warning) you can apply to your team right NOW.

1. Avoid the Overwhelm by Keeping It Simple

You don’t have to flood your team with words to get them to action. But you do have to be clear, concise, and direct.

In dog sled racing, you may be surprised to learn they do not use whips or reigns. In order to control, motivate, correct, and adjust, the leader verbally communicates with the team.

Mushing has its own language of about 10 to 20 words—that’s it.  

Mush! Hike! Gee. Haw. Line out. Pick it up. Whoa. On By. Come.

When it comes to directing the team and leading them toward an actionable result, veiled references or cloudy innuendoes won’t cut it. (I haven’t heard of any Husky claiming to be psychic!)

For years, my own communication weakness was to suggest a course of action that actually needed to happen quickly for the sake of the company.  

When the team failed to act or make course correction swiftly enough, I moved into “command and control” mode. Neither extreme works well and the combination of the two is certainly not recommended!

The simplicity of a leader’s language reflects his or her ability to communicate with the team with speed and precision, and then inspire action.

2. Identify Your Communication Landscapes

When mushing my own team through the Alaskan outdoors, I remember getting so caught up with the trail at times that I forgot to take in the landscape. Not only was it beautiful, but it was also always changing.

Just like the Iditarod has different challenges on different parts of the trail, so does your business communication. How we navigate each of those affects our race success.

Landscapes on the communication trail are:

  • one-on-one conversations
  • one-to-many conversations
  • meetings
  • vision casting
  • presentations
  • confrontation
  • demonstration
  • delegation
  • accountability

And the list goes on…..

I encourage you to take a minute today to think about your communication strengths and weaknesses. Where on the trail are you strong in communication and where are you weak?

3. Action Affects Belief

Did you know that every day you say a lot to your team—without speaking a word?

In the dog kennels we could instantly tell which dogs belonged to each musher because the pack mirrored their leader’s energy.

My Norwegian mentor, Nils, created a sense of stoic, serene strength in his pack. They didn’t jump or howl, but waited patiently for the next training run, feed, or move.  He believed this self-control made the entire pack stronger.

Another musher led a team of exuberant dogs. (You couldn’t miss them.) He could work them up into a frenzy of excitement for the race ahead, and he took encouragement from their energy.

While I knew Nils dogs ran well under his training, I also loved how the loud pack spurred each other on and amplified this sense of adventure.

Two successful teams. Two different cultures. Two different communication styles.

Each team behavior, however, originated from the leader’s belief in what makes his team work best. Each leader believed in a certain team culture, revealed that belief through specific training decisions, then watched that belief translate to the team.

Of course, different projects or ventures may require teams that match the energy and creativity of the situation. They will always, however, end up reflecting the tone you set as the leader.

But Watch Out…

The fact is that none of us sees reality.  All that we see is OUR reality.

Every one of us sees life through our own “sunglasses,” and through those lenses the world is “bent” to become our world—our perception. We all have sunglasses, and they almost never leave our eyes.

Great leaders understand the value of their lenses—but take the time to look past it and understand their team.

If your pack sees a totally different landscape than you, it makes sense that they won’t go where you direct— because that way just won’t make sense to their lenses.

Shout and push all you want, but until there is an understanding, a compromise, or a strong faith in your intuition, the team as a whole will not progress. (Remember, mushers don’t rely on whips to move their teams. Instead they practice communication.)

When leaders can adapt their vision for the inclusion of the team—while staying true to the belief that made them set out to race in the first place, that’s where you will find a winning team.

Catalyze Your Success with Communication

Communication is one of the greatest assets, not only a dog racing team, but your corporate/team culture can develop, to gain the highest rate of return.

When people can communicate with clarity, goals are achieved easily, and swiftly. When employees have an open understanding of the way others think and feel, they are able to manage conflict, overcome challenges, and communicate solutions quickly.

Let your team know they are just that: a TEAM brought together under a common mission.

If you feel like could use some guidance on improving communication in your team, drop me a note using the form below.

You can finish the race strong if you keep it simple, identify your communication landscape, shape the culture with your actions, and learn to see through new lenses.

How Iditarod Can Help You Create a Winning Team

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 full 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 the leader’s 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 as 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 will scare some off.

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.

Leadership Truths



As we close down 2015 and move into 2016, I sat back and reflected on some of my journey and the privilege I have to help others become stronger leaders. I’ve shared below a compilation of some of my favorite Leadership Truths. Take a look and choose your top 5 where you believe that by living that truth you can raise your own bar in the new year.  Commit to a little self-reflection and resolve to make 2016 a year to focus on cultivating your own personal leadership legacy and ensuring the influence you have on your team is always positive.

1.      Maturity is a choice not an age. 2.      As a leader, be contagious, not infectious.
3.      Leading a team is a different skill set than    accomplishing great individual feats. 4.      Create an organization that makes more leaders than it breaks.
5.      Lead where you’re strong. Team where you’re weak. 6.      Business and life are marathons. We have to strategically pace ourselves in order to finish.
7.      Great leaders are concerned about their positive influence, their legacy. 8.      Strategic placement of team members produces the best results.
9.      Self-awareness helps in building the right team for you. 10.   It’s your team.  You cannot complain about what you permit.
11.   When you need a little more pull from your team, try letting them chase a team just a little faster or better than themselves. 12.   Amateurs practice until they get it right.  Professionals practice until they can’t get it wrong.
13.   Great leaders take time to get to know their team, really know them. 14.   Consider the strengths of the team as a component of strategy.
15.   Communicate in their language, not yours. 16.   Unleash the power of the team.
17.   You don’t have to flood your team with words to get them to action.  Be clear.  Be concise.  Be direct. 18.   Start ugly.  If you’re not willing to start ugly, you’re never going to start.  Learn.  Grow.  Make it pretty next time.
19.   Mentors know to put us in charge of teams that match our abilities. 20.   I can’t lead the team I want.  I have to lead the team I have.
21.   Frustration is a function of expectation. 22.   Lead people; manage things.
23.   If you’re a leader and not learning every day, you’re likely not a leader for long. 24.   Don’t ask for more sweat equity than you give.
25.   People join companies; people quit people. Be someone people want to stay with. 26.   Sometimes you have to drop or reassign a team member if it’s hurting the rest of the team.
27.   Experience it; don’t just witness it. 28.   Trust is the currency of leadership.
29.   Leading a team to victory is often the result of conquering or leading one’s self first. 30.   The mirror is rarely pleasant, but it’s almost always honest.
31.   Problems rarely work themselves out. 32.   As a leader, what you allow you endorse.
33.   The trail we carve as leaders profoundly affects the next generation. 34.   Nobody wants to be managed; people want to be inspired.
35.   Every leader gets the team they deserve, eventually. The team you inherited is not your fault. The team you have a year from now is. 36.   How you treat those on the inside is an indicator of how they will treat those who come from the outside.
37.   Don’t transfer emotional baggage to your team.  If you need to unload, talk to another leader 38.   For that extra motivation, learn your team individually and incentivize accordingly.
39.   Hire for values; train for skills. 40.   Find awesome, and copy it.


Changing business climates and lack of support…

In any leadership position, newly acquired or not, there are going to be rough spots. Days when it seems like your driving a sled meant for snow over rocks and dirt. For the team, It can be like trying to run full speed over dirt and rocks in your bare feet. For the sled, it’s like being in quicksand. The protective coatings placed over the runners can get ripped to shreds and if you take a spill, it’s going to hurt.

Having those clear, insightful discussions about the terrain and how it has been affected by the recent “Business Climate” changes is urgently important. The earlier you know about the upcoming conditions, the more options you have, the more prepared you can be, and the more time you have to reduce the risk of flipping the sled.

Gathering information from multiple sources helps in these sections. For business in this area I like to involve both art and science.

Science is going to give us the raw and interpreted data. I say, “Interpreted” because for the most part when you are presented with the numbers, the person presenting them is going to give you their ‘Lens’ on those numbers. Having multiple people share their ‘Lenses’ will help round out your thinking and your options. This helps to ensure you don’t take a wrong course of action and either flip the sled or wander off course. What are the numbers? What do we believe they tell us? Why do we believe they tell us that? What make up the causes for the numbers? Is this an isolated climate change or a global crisis? Asking the questions will reveal telling answers AND can reveal more Frozen Rivers (see yesterday’s post)

Art is the ‘Gut’ side of the business for the ‘Manly’. This is where you or your team may have ‘Intuition’, insight, or you can ‘sense’ that there are changes in the trail ahead. Sensory perception, intuition, or gut feelings can be useful. Mushers who run their entire businesses on it can subject their teams to a lot of change and ‘rabbit chases’ – so use this with caution but don’t dismiss it totally.

I’ve been under leaders that could sense problems before my numbers ever showed the reality of it. In this case the numbers lagged the sensing. At other times the statistical analysis led the way. (if you want more on this click the button at the bottom and I’ll do a future blog on it)

For the 150 or so miles leading up to the Yukon river and then along the Icy coast there is very little support. Checkpoints and supply lines are further apart and the Mushers and their teams really fight the mind games that go along with isolation and dwindling support.

As a leader that is either new in position or new to leadership overall, make sure you know where your support ends and what trails you’ll need to go with little or no support at all. Try to minimize these sections of terrain until you have enough time in to develop support for those areas. Remember: your meant to lead the team from the sled – not run out front, grab a harness and pull the sled and all 16 team members! Firm up your support, get others on the same page and ready to pull – then you’ll reduce those ‘Barren’ areas. Don’t fight battles that don’t need to be fought yet – and don’t make everything a ‘Life or Death’, ‘Do or Die’ choice. There is a great quote that says, “If you make every situation a ‘Life or Death’ deal – You’ll be dead a lot!” I don’t know who said it – but it is very true.

If you find yourself in a barren stretch of terrain, keep the lines of communication open. Increase your communication to a mentor, coach, or peer. If you need to take a momentary trail break and rally the team – do it! The first goal is to finish the race – you can’t win, if you don’t finish!

Remember the learning points from the week:

1.) Take time to get to know your team

2.) Learn the terrain.

3.) Don’t be too rigid or make changes too fast.

4.) Let your team get to know you.

See you at the next ‘Leadership Checkpoint’ on Monday.