Have you ever been stopped in your tracks by risk? Faced with balancing the odds of success, the investment you've made in relationships, the value of the win, how do you make your choice? Often it is the actions that others don't see that truly define winners from losers.
I am always amazed when I find myself experiencing a business lesson while engaged in something completely unrelated. One such event occurred on a winter day in northern Pennsylvania.
A cold example
Instead of thinking about a corporate setting, visualize broad, open, snow-covered hills with trails merging in and out of wooded ravines.
Years ago I was fortunate to have been mentored in the sport of dog sledding by a family with a well-established kennel and reputation in the field. On my very first race, I did something that still causes laughter among my dog-loving colleagues.
Mitch, a highly experienced dog driver from this family, showed trust in my abilities by loaning me a team of dogs. His second, or "B" team, they were seasoned sled dogs used to racing and winning. I was nervous about the enormity of the responsibility. For one thing, dog sledding is not an easy or safe sport.
I was intimidated and worried: Could I develop the stamina and endurance to go the distance? Even the strongest drivers have accidents on the trail or could be thrown from a sled in the middle of the wilderness. If I could get into condition to do the work, could I handle the risk? And, most important: Would the dogs obey my commands?
The team's first effort
Mitch spent time introducing me to the dogs, showing me how to learn their different personalities and talents. I worked with each dog separately, understanding each one's particular task and place on the team. Totally responsible for their maintenance, I spent every available moment with the dogs, monitoring their health and comfort. My respect for these athletes grew with each predawn run on the training trails as we became a team.
After weeks of successful training runs, I entered my first race. Confident that I had developed a good rapport with my borrowed team, I was excited about the event and certain I had considered all possibilities.
We had a smooth and fast break—the 12th team of 26 leaving the “chute” in time-staggered starts. It was a clear day. When our flag dropped, I shouted the standard "Let's Go" command, and the dogs bounded from the gate, eagerly moving with the focused power of an athletic team. I had never felt so strong, so healthy, as I pumped with one foot and stood on one runner, easily falling into the traditional musher's role.
Quickly responding to my "haw" command, the dogs took the left trail through the woods. It seemed like only a few minutes had flown by before the trees were gone and the trail opened into glaring sunlight. We now faced our first hill. I was surprised to see that we had caught up with the driver in front of us! Both he and I were off the runners, working with our teams, pushing the sleds as we began the ascent.
My team was in a rhythm, working as we had done on our many practice runs. Taking long strides, we continued to gain speed. It seemed only a moment before the lead dog moved to within 30 feet of the other driver. I was running, pushing, and guiding the sled. Calling out the "on by" command would alert the other driver to "give way" and signal my team to move to the left to pass the slower team.
To my shock, I heard myself calling out, but not to my team. I was speaking to the other driver, asking the polite question: "Can we pass?" Unbelievably, the critical moment I had worked for had arrived and I was asking for permission to succeed!
The lead dog shows the way
I don't know who was more startled, my lead dog or the other driver. Both turned to me with expressions of disbelief. Hours seemed to pass as I ran. We were only halfway up that hill and I was tiring.
It was the lead dog that brought me to my senses. Tana was a sleek red female with the passion and heart to lead her pack. We locked eyes for the briefest of moments before she turned back to her task. I could see her, running in single lead, lower her head and hunch her shoulders while lengthening her stride. She was reaching out to win. Finally, I caught the cue and remembered my task to give the "on by" command. The dogs responded with an extra burst of speed as I strained to keep the weight of the sled off the dogs. We worked together, passing several other teams before crossing the finish line and completing the race in third place.
Reflections on risks and pursuits
During the long drive home, I wondered what I was after by participating in this physically strenuous, potentially dangerous activity. What was it all about? How could I apply what I learned to my professional life? What was important about this experience?
First, I would like to think it is being part of a team; that's where the passion lies. The moments I cherish most are the small actions that I found nurturing and that enabled me to grow: the wisdom shared by other drivers, the joy of learning how to handle the sled on a tight turn, the satisfaction of observing how each dog performed its assigned task. It's knowing your strengths and the strength of your team and having the confidence to move toward your goal.
Second, it was also about risk—one's willingness to take it and the role of the leader in establishing an environment in which risk is truly accepted. It is valuable for senior managers to step back and evaluate the risk-taking culture of their organization. Do your employees need to ask permission to reach beyond the norm? Such intervention dilutes the passion, the edge, the drive. Maybe business needs an "on by" command to use when a team has the passion, the drive, and the commitment to embrace what lies before it.
Simply put, the value of the effort was very personal. It was the experience itself that I relished. And, most important, the joy of being, of reaching out, of focusing my life energy with my team was the unexpected treasure that I learned from the dogs.
For more information, visit Institute for Corporate Productivity’s Leadership Knowledge Center.