“If you are not the lead dog the view never changes”

I cringe a little whenever I hear managers use this saying. Sometimes it is to justify their own aggressive behavior, other times to explain why a subordinate won’t move on unless they change their behavior. .

The actual reference is to the Iditarod – that famous race across part of Alaska pitting man and dog against the elements. The saying can be interpreted as ‘be a leader or forever be led’ or ‘if you aren’t a leader you aren’t going anywhere’. In either case the connotation is that non-leaders aren’t as important or as valuable as leaders.

And that notion bothers me.

I’m a great believer in teamship. Sure, those two lead dogs in the Iditarod are first to see a new changed view. They are picked in part for their uncanny ability to choose the trail and the best path forward. They determine direction with help from their driver. But they also take the sting of snow icicles and wind first so it’s not all glory up there. And they aren’t the strongest dogs in the team. When the going gets icy it’s the surefootedness and strength of the dogs behind that secure the sled to the trail and keep it moving on. The bulk of the team are happy at letting someone else decide where to go while they add the brawn to help get there. A successful Iditarod team has dogs of varying capabilities reflecting the different abilities needed to battle some of the harshest elements man faces. Some are cheerleaders, some are unflagging in their pulling power. Some have sixth sense about where to turn and obstacles to avoid. All are needed.

I’ve been fortunate to lead many teams in my business career and also to be a member of teams under another leader. I find teams are most effective when individual members recognize the strengths and contributions of each of the other members. That is, they have enough self -confidence to embrace the skills of others for the team’s good. As in football, we can’t all be quarterbacks. The quarterback depends on protection from his guards and tackles, and receivers depend on him to get them the ball.

Teams that work best have a range of talents among individuals. Some slight overlap certainly preserves continuity and provides double checking, but if all membesr were clones of one another there’d be no need for the team – one person could do all the decision making. In some teams there are people who shy away from decision making. They can be no less important than those who do – especially if they are the ‘operators’ who make things happen once a decision is made. We need them all.

So if you are a lead dog, don’t belittle the others behind you. Without them you wouldn’t be a leader nor as successful as you are. Be thankful for their support and encouragement. And recognize their unique abilities and contributions. They’ll appreciate their place and role more in knowing you care.