Leadership Lessons from the "Leader of the Pack"

Published: Jan 24, 2019

I knew I would learn something. Little did I know that the lessons I would learn watching Disney’s movie Eight Below (released in 2006) would be about leadership and teamwork. I learned that the magnificent sled dogs of the tundra know more about teamwork and leadership than the management teams of many Fortune 500 companies.

Eight Below is inspired by an actual 1957 Japanese expedition. For this Americanized version, the story is brought forward to 1993. The date is of interest because it was the last year these dogs were allowed in Antarctica. If you know the history of the original Iditarod, you know the courage, toughness, and importance of sled dogs throughout the history of North America.

Watching this movie can teach us as much about humans as it does about dogs! Old Jack, Maya, Max, and the rest of the team reminded me of these lessons in team leadership:

1.  Identify the leader once and for all.
In the movie, the human leader has identified one dog, Jack, as the soon to be retired leader. Another dog, Maya, is being groomed to be the new “top dog.”

When the crises depicted in the film occur, this leadership transition has not yet been finalized. However, when the crises do occur, the lead dog willingly gives up his leader role. As if he knows he is no longer the one for the job, he doesn’t just defer, he stays behind so that the group can go on without him. He ensures that there is no confusion as to whom the team will rely on for its survival.

Juxtapose this example with what happened at Nike. When Phil Knight stepped down as CEO, executives said he remained a dominant figure behind the scenes. Did that create an environment which fostered the transition of loyalty to the new leader?  Knight's hand-picked successor was given 13 months, a mere sprint in sports analogy. We certainly can learn a lesson from the sled dogs about how to create a culture where once a leader is identified, loyalty is transitioned to the new leader by the former leader.

2.  Good leaders protect team members.
In Eight Below, one of the dogs gets hurt falling off a snow bank. The lead dog places her body on top of the injured dog and covers him throughout the night. The remainder of the pack crowds around offering warmth and support.

How many leaders in today’s world protect their team and how many figuratively throw rocks at their own team, even when they are literally joined together? Colonel R. Michael Mullane, former space shuttle astronaut, tells audiences that little voices went unheard; danger signals were missed and warnings ignored on the way to the Challenger and Columbia tragedies.
Dogs instinctively know to protect their team members; why don’t we?

3. Team members empower their leader.
Support goes both ways. The pack dogs in the film protect their leader. They bring her food and are submissive to the leader. Their actions are similar to the airline rule for parents, where the adult is instructed to place the oxygen mask on his or her face first and then on the child. The unwritten and unspoken rule is that the leader will take care of the team. In return, the team empowers the leader. When Maya the leader dog is hurt, Max becomes the fill-in leader dog. Upon rescue he saves Maya from being left behind and a certain frozen death.

John L. Mariotti, president and CEO, of The Enterprise Group, says, “Make no mistake about it—a great leader is the essential first ingredient of success. However, I have yet to see an aspiring leader succeed without a group of devoted and competent followers, all pulling together and helping the leader succeed.”

The sled dogs protected the leader first and then themselves. Why are human teams so often different? How many of today’s leaders are left in the cold?

4. Leaders need followers.
The role of the follower has been undervalued in popular culture. If leadership is admired, can we admire “followership”? Not everyone, nor every dog, is genetically or socially programmed to be a leader. And that’s OK. Because leaders need followers. The sled dogs seemed to know this intuitively. They did not waste energy fighting for the lead. A leader can’t conquer the mountain (literally or figuratively) by himself.

“Great followers are instrumental in the success that is attributed to great leaders,” says Mariotti.

Teams, echoing the companies that they operate within, have a culture of either respect or a lack of respect for their team members. Culture always comes from the top. In an effort to redefine the relationship with their workers, the “Big Three” auto companies—General Motors, Ford, and Chrysler—negotiated a new contract with the United Automobile Workers Union. There is now only one category for hourly workers: team member.  Every worker learns every job, and as a result, the work force is self-starting and flexible.

5. Be stream-lined and purpose driven.
The “Eight Below” dog team’s goal is stream-lined—to keep each other alive. The dogs are purpose driven, working together to hunt down birds to survive.

We used to think big was best and the more we could do, the better. Once, the Big Three were the giants of the automotive world. Together they outsold the next four car companies two to one. “It’s good to be small, because you can move quickly,” admits Ron Pinelli, president of an industry statistics firm. He goes on to say, “The whole large-company culture is a burden.” Today 250 employees in one plant will produce 840,000 engines a year. Can you accomplish more by being stream-lined and purpose driven?

The sled dogs left behind in Antarctica worked together to stay alive—the most basic definition of a team. It’s a group of individuals—be they four-legged or two-legged—that despite differences in their education, compensation, or experience, work together toward a common goal. How is your team doing?