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Epic race: What leaders can learn from Iditarod 2010

Chris Fuller
Chris Fuller is a speaker, consultant, adventurist and author, most recently, of Iditarod Leadership: Unleashing the Power of the Team. His company, Influence Leadership, develops leaders around the world.

Adventure, endurance, strategy and execution -- all these qualities of leadership are on display in Alaska this week, as the Iditarod Trial Sled Dog Race hurtles to its conclusion.

The "last great race on earth" pits teams of 16 huskies and a "musher" against one another on a grueling 1,100-mile, multiday journey. Having launched their bids amidst throngs of cheering onlookers on March 7 near Anchorage, the competitors are now closing in on the finish line in Nome.

As always the course has presented enormous challenges to the 70-plus teams, including temperatures reaching down to -50⁰ F. Some veteran mushers expected to be in the top ten are struggling, relegated to the middle of the pack. For others, the race is already over.

And now at the front of the pack, two leaders are battling it out for first. If defending champion Lance Mackey pulls off the victory, it will be a record-setting fourth consecutive win for him. But breathing down his neck is Jeff King -- also a previous Iditarod champion. If King overtakes Mackey in this last 150 miles, he would set his own record, becoming only the second musher ever to win five Iditarods. For sure it's going to be a glorious sprint to Nome.

The qualities on display during this epic race are inspiring for any who watch it. For leaders, however, there is something more: The race presents a challenge, something to live up to. Here are four aspects of the race that leaders can learn from:

Vision. Teams need something to run toward. In the Iditarod it's the Burled Arch, a 5,000 wooden gateway in Nome that, for mushers and dogs alike, represents the end of more than a week of all-out exertion -- not to mention the months of training and preparation that made the effort possible. What's your organization's Burled Arch? How will you know when you reach it? Without vision, your team has no destination, and without a destination the race is not possible.

Teaming. You can't compete in the Iditarod by yourself -- you must have a team, and in this race, your team is 16 sensitive but powerful huskies. These dogs can run hard and persevere under harsh conditions, but unless you care for and connect with them, they have no reason to pull for you. Putting together the right team is an important strategic decision for each leader. An Iditarod leader knows to learn the strength and weaknesses of each team member and place each one next to the right partner. Are you taking the time to learn what each of your team members has to offer? Your "dream team" will only come together through careful observation, compassionate leadership and strategic placements.

Communication. "Gee!" "Haw!" "Line out!" Those words may mean nothing to you, but to a musher and his or her dogs, these words are the vital link tying the leader and team while on the trail. Just as mushing has a language of its own, so every organization develops its own way of communicating. Developing an organizational language -- or knowing the existing organizational language -- is key to performance. Using words that are unclear or that lack meaning to the individuals on the team yields little, if any, results. Do you speak your organization's language?

Purpose. The Iditarod is more than an athletic competition -- it is also a commemorative race. In 1925, when diptheria broke out in Nome, the only serum was in Anchorage and the only pilot to fly it unavailable. Instead teams of dogs and mushers raced the live-saving medicine to Nome on sleds. This mission of medical mercy is part of the spirit of the race. We all need to be reminded of the transcendent power of helping others. What is your organization's purpose? How do you remind yourself and your people that the work you do has a greater meaning?

With just hours left in this year's great race, we can only say: May the best team win!

By Chris Fuller

 |  March 15, 2010; 5:19 AM ET |  Category:  Sports leadership Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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Tremendous and insightful article. Thanks for looking at the Iditarod from this perspective.

Posted by: mediaskeptic | March 16, 2010 9:43 AM


This is a very interesting and effective way to look at teamwork! I can imagine thinking of a manager who might consider the work of her team as that of highly trained huskies who really pulled together under harsh conditions toward a common goal. This would have to open their eyes and see how caring for the needs of the team would make them run faster, harder, and more cooperatively. This is a great mental picture to help leaders keep focus of who is actually getting them over the finish line!

Great piece!

Tom Schulte
Linked 2 Leadership

Posted by: tomschulte | March 15, 2010 3:18 PM

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