Billionaire real estate mogul Sam Zell bought it. American Airlines Chairman and CEO Robert Crandall adopted it as his mantra. Crozer-Keystone Health Systems CEO John McMeekin gave every one of his senior managers a paperweight inscribed with it.
It’s the favorite aphorism of leadership gurus and motivational consultants everywhere: “If you’re not the lead dog, the view doesn’t change.” The point of this pungent canine colloquialism: in a dog-eat-dog world, leaders fight their way to the front of the pack and leave the rest with…well, a proctologist’s view of the world.
Not a pretty thought. But is it even true? If you’re not leading the pack, is the view really so bleak? We handed the problem over to the Fast Company Consultant Debunking Unit (CDU) for investigation.
The CDU first turned to John Wright, a leading animal behaviorist and a professor of psychology at Mercer University in Macon, Georgia, for an academic perspective on the canine mind. According to Wright, the social organization of dogs is more about comfort than competition. “Sled dogs will recognize that the dog in front of them does or does not belong there,” says Wright. “Seeing the dog that’s supposed to be there stabilizes relationships and improves overall team performance.”
For inside information about the dogs themselves, the CDU called Susan Callahan, a trainer at Galena Creek-Kortar West-Snosecret Siberian Huskies in Reedsport, Oregon, whose sled dogs were voted Oregon Dune Mushers’ Team of the Year in 1996. The notion that there’s one lead dog and all the others are followers, says Callahan, is worse than simplistic – it’s wrong. “In dog sledding, there are two types of leaders: trail leaders and gee-haw leaders,” she explains. “Trail leaders run where the trail is clearly marked. Gee-haw leaders are better at navigating difficult or unclear trails and at following specific commands, such as ‘Gee!’ — go right — or ‘Haw!’ — go left.”
Furthermore, Callahan points out, lead dogs alone don’t get a sled anywhere. Directly behind lead dogs are point dogs and swing dogs — which often get a chance to lead during a race or training run. The team dogs follow next — and far from being a bunch of poochie losers, they actually provide the bulk of the team’s pulling power. Finally, the wheel dogs run directly in front of the sled and guide it around turns.
To get the last word on the lead dog controversy, the CDU called on two experienced mushers. “The other dogs don’t actually spend a lot of time looking straight ahead,” says two-time Iditarod racer and retired U.S. Air Force pilot Don Bowers, from his cabin near Talkeetna, Alaska. “They’re usually looking out to the sides and having just as much fun as the lead dogs.”
But if anyone knows about lead dogs and scenery, it’s Martin Buser, a musher who has run the Iditarod 14 times and won it 3 times. He set the course record in 1992, becoming the first musher to break the race’s 10-day barrier, and again in 1994. Now he owns the Happy Trail Kennel in Big Lake, Alaska. Is the saying true? “Of course not,” says Buser dismissively. “There’s plenty of scenery to go around for everyone.” Moreover, he says, “The times of old-style racing — when there was one lead dog racing up front and everybody else was a team dog — are over! There are plenty of leaders, and all the dogs have plenty to see.”
And here’s one more tip from the CDU: when you want the dogs to go, you don’t really say “Mush!” (That’s what you say to consultants when they try to tell you what they “know” about lead dogs and scenery.)