Leslie Ungar, The Inner Brilliance of Electric Impulse, Inc.

Are You Ahead of the Pack?

Leslie’s Articles

I knew I would learn something. Little did I know that the lessons I would learn watching Disney’s newly released “Eight Below” would be about leadership and teamwork.

I learned that the magnificent sled dogs of the tundra know more about teamwork and leadership than most Fortune 500 companies.

“Eight Below” is inspired by an actual 1957 Japanese expedition.

For this Americanized version the story is brought forward to 1993.

This 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 through out 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, their human leader had identified one dog as the retiring leader and one dog as the up and coming leader. Old Jack was to be retired in days, and Maya was groomed to be the new top dog.

When the crises happened the team had not finalized the transition.

When the crises happened, the lead dog gave up his leader role.

As if he knew he was not the one for the job, he didn’t just defer, he stayed behind so that the group would go on without him. It was as if he was making it clear that there would be no confusion as to whom the leader would be for their survival.

Juxtapose this example with Nike.

When Phil Knight stepped down as CEO, executives said he remained a dominant figure behind the scenes. Did he allow loyalty to transition to the new leader? The Knight hand-picked successor was given 13 months, a mere sprint in sports analogy. Could we learn from the sled dogs 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
One of the dogs was hurt falling off a snow bank. The lead dog put her body on top of the injured dog and slept the night in that position. The remainder of the pack crowded 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 literallyjoined 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
The pack dogs protected their leader. They brought food to the leader and were submissive to the leader. Almost like the airline rule for parents, put the oxygen mask on you first and then your child. The unwritten and unspoken rule was that the leader would take care of the team. In return, the team would empower the leader. When Maya the leader dog was hurt, Max became the fill-in leader dog. Upon rescue he saved Maya from being left behind and a certain frozen death.

John L. Mariotti, President & CEO, The Enterprise Group says “make no mistake about it–the great leader is the essential first ingredient. 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
If leadership is admired, can we admire followership?
Everyone, every dog isn’t genetically or socially programmed to be a leader.
And that’s OK. Because leaders need followers.
The sled dogs seemed to know this and did not waste energy fighting for the lead. A leader can’t take the mountain (literally or figuratively) by themselves. The role of the follower has been undervalued in popular culture.

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

Teams like the companies that they operate within have a culture of 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 negotiated a new contract with the United Automobile Workers Union. There is now only one category for hourly workers called 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
This dog team worked together to hunt down birds and to keep each other alive.
Their goal was stream lined and they were purpose driven. We used to think big was best and the more we could do the better.

The Big Three, General Motors, Ford, and Chrysler, 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.

This in its brevity defines a team. 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?