An old dog can still learn a new trick. In my previous article (Looks Don’t Matter, Part 1), I wrote of our tour of the Alaskan sled dog training facility last summer near Denali. The point of the article was that the dogs were valued for heart and attitude, not because of looks or appearance. The color of coat, color of eyes, and ears up or down were not important. What was important was their willingness and eagerness to do what they were born to do–run with speed and power. They do it in a spirit of cooperation and affection for the driver and the team. Based on what the trainer was saying about the dogs, we should do no less in measuring a person. Look at the heart, what’s on the inside, rather than judge by appearance. I’m learning new tricks from these dogs.
When it was time to hitch the dogs to a training sled, they went wild with eager anticipation of being chosen for the team. There was more to learn from this demonstration as well. The Alaskan sled team consists of six dogs–two lead dogs, two dogs in the middle, and the two nearest the sled. Each was chosen for their particular skill set. As the trainer began to review the criteria for each position, I could immediately see more application to my own life.
Two lead dogs instead of one set the example of cooperation and teamwork for the whole team. It defuses the ego that can come into play when one is “the” lead dog instead of “a” lead dog. The dog’s objective is not to compete to become the leader; it is to be a part of the team. When two dogs are the leaders, they can actually help each other lead. There is less chance a command or maneuver is missed. The dogs only learn four basic commands–stop, go, right, and left. Their job, therefore, comes down to two things: listen to the driver, and instantly obey the commands. Soldiers train by marching to hone those same skills–listen and instantly obey. By leading from out front, the other dogs will follow. Even though they are the leaders, they also help shoulder the load. They pull their share of the weight of the sled. That is a real lesson in leadership, I thought to myself.
The two dogs in the middle are to follow the lead dogs with regard to both direction and pace. Since they are closer to the sled, they are also to assist more in pulling the weight of the load. In other words, as good members of the team, they are to be good followers, and they are to share in carrying the load. Their assistance in both these areas makes a strong statement to the team. They are willing to help in all areas of the work assignment, up and down the line.
Finally, the two dogs nearest the sled need to be the strongest and most powerful. When it is time to move forward on the assignment, their power sets the sled and the team in motion when it has been at a dead stop. Newton’s First Law of Motion says that things in motion tend to stay in motion, and things at rest tend to stay at rest. The greatest force, the most strength is needed to pull a load at rest into motion. Getting a sled or a team or a project started is often the hardest part. Once it is moving forward, and has some momentum, it is often much easier to complete the task. These dogs are in the rear of the team, yet their role is just as vital as any other. There is a certain satisfaction from doing important and meaningful work, no matter the title or position on the team.
The combined skill sets of the six-dog team provide willingness to take instruction, leadership, direction, pace, followers, assistance where needed, and power. Nothing is accomplished unless the whole team works together to accomplish it, and everyone shares equally in the recognition and reward. Each dog knows the role they are to play. Each role is very different. No dog is trying to play another’s role. The roles complement each other nicely so that every necessity is covered. Each dog is not in competition to beat out the others for the leader’s role, but rather is working as a unit to achieve the common goal of moving the sled to the desired location. What a dream team.
As I thought about applications of this lesson, I could not help but think of what the Bible says regarding teamwork. Romans 12:4-8 says “Just as each of us has one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function, so in Christ we who are many form one body and each member belongs to all the others. We have different gifts according to the grace given us. If a man’s gift is prophesying, let him use it in proportion to his faith. If it is serving, let him serve; if it is teaching, let him teach; if it is encouraging, let him encourage; if it is contributing to the needs of others, let him give generously; if it is leadership, let him govern diligently; if it is showing mercy, let him do it cheerfully.”
The apostle Paul wrote these words under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit to describe the players and the team (the church) that would do the work of Jesus until His triumphant return to the earth at the end of the age. The Kikuyu people of Kenya say “if a person walks alone, he can walk fast; but if he walks with others, he can walk far.” So much more is accomplished within the framework of a team than could ever be accomplished by one person working alone.
So these principles of teamwork and leadership, so adeptly taught by the Alaskan sled dogs, can apply to the church, a business organization, a marriage, or to a family:
- The players are all different, and have different looks and abilities; but a common goal, once clearly defined, communicated, and agreed, can energize and unite them.
- Let the players’ differences work to the team’s advantage, not against it.
- Give each player meaningful work that corresponds to, but often stretches, their abilities.
- Each player should know the value of their assignment, and how it fits into accomplishing the common goal.
- Players should know that recognition comes from doing their assignment well, not from trying to be the leader. Effort is appreciated; egos are not.
- Recognition should also come from helping others do their assignment well. Cover for the other players.
- Leaders should lead by example, helping with the work where needed.
- Great teams are comprised of great leaders and great followers. Great followers give enthusiastic effort and obey instructions instantly. Great leaders set direction, but do not try to do all the work themselves. Rather, they rely on the team to help with the assignment. Both should respect the other for their contribution.
These principles are Biblical, and they are common sense. Diversity is an advantage, not a disadvantage. Differences in appearance, skills, and approach can be crafted into a team when a common goal unites and these principles are applied. God is building His team. What part will you play?