Yesterday I had the absolute pleasure of driving or ‘mushing’ a team of Alaskan huskies in Rovaniemi, Finland, an experience run by the Bearhill Husky kennel. After some instructions from the guide, who would lead the convoy of husky teams, we were able to drive our own team. My husband and I both enjoyed turns as driver or ‘musher’ and as a passenger, with our children in the sled with us.
Learning about the dog teams and watching them work, and driving a team myself, had me reflecting on good school leadership and how it’s similar in many ways to training, running, managing and driving a husky team. (Of course, there are many ways in which these things are entirely dissimilar, but let’s not let that get in the way of this tangential reflection.)
- Know your people. Know your context.
An effective leader knows their team, knows their community and knows their clients. The husky guides knew each dog well, and watched them during the ride. Apart from the guide sled out front, the dog teams were being driven by novices like me, guests of the kennel entrusted to run a dog team for 90 minutes. Yet the staff from the kennel were always on the lookout for dogs, guests and terrain.
An effective leader needs to know the conditions they are traversing, and also how those conditions might change. At certain tricky checkpoints, staff from the kennel were there to ensure the smooth running of the ride. They zipped through the Lappish forest and across frozen lakes on snowmobiles to ensure the safety of dogs and passengers at all times. The ride was not without incident, but there were always personnel there to attend to any issues that arose.
- Trust the people. Trust the process.
The staff at the kennel had put in the hard work to train their dogs, to build relationships, to familiarise them with the tracks, to ensure the lead dogs could take direction, that the team compositions were optimal, that the strong wheel dogs at the back could pull the weight of the load. They know that the dogs want to run (and anyone can see and hear how excited huskies get when they want to take off). The staff at the kennel, in handing over the sleds to their guests, put their trust in their dogs to do their job well. Once it is time to run, they trust the dogs, trust the track, trust the process. As driver, I too needed to trust the dogs, the track and the process.
In schools, too, trust is key. We need to put faith in our teachers and school leaders. When we have put in processes for change, we need to trust the process and trust the people.
- Be agile.
There was a clear plan in place for our husky experience. An order of who went in which sled (families at the back, for instance). Rules to follow (like ‘no overtaking without permission’). Dog teams had been carefully put together with a knowledge of the dogs and of what makes an effective team. Yet there was still a need for agility and making snap decisions. A number of times, a dog was swapped out of one team to another because the team was not performing. Dogs were tied to each other, but these groupings were fluid and changed according to the need of the individual and the group.
There were also some incidents. One dog cut loose and ran up the track alone. He was soon caught and back to his team. One family’s sled tipped over and as they toppled out the driver went to help his family up, letting go of the sled’s handle bar in the process. The dog team took off, with the empty sled trailing behind it. Again, there was a contingency for this, and the convoy of teams and staff took action to reunite the family with their team, and get the convoy of teams and sleds back together again.
We may plan painstakingly when leading schools, but leaders need to be ready and willing to make quick decisions in the best interest of the individuals in their care and for their various stakeholders and wider communities. The best team leaders are focused and agile. They have their eye on their people, the conditions, for possible problems before they appear, for any danger that may lie ahead.
- Work hard.
When it was my turn to drive the husky team, I realised what hard work it was. Focusing on the track and teams ahead, reading the conditions (a sharp corner, a high snowy bank, a rocky slope), being ready to brake, running with the team up hills and then jumping onto the foot boards again. Some of this work goes unnoticed. As the driver at the back, the passengers and dogs can’t see the strain on your face when making driving decisions, or the effort of running with the dogs while the passengers enjoy the view. It was worth it for the exhilaration of flying through the snowy wilderness with the icy fresh wind against my face, but it meant hard work of both the driver and their team.
Leaders in schools work hard. Their work is often different to that of the team they are leading. Like the driver of a husky team, their view is slightly different, and they can see more of the wider landscape and bigger picture. Some of their hard work or difficult decision making goes unnoticed. And that’s ok. It’s part of leading.
- Encourage and support.
Driving a husky team, you feel a connection between you as the driver and the dogs in your team. We had one dog, who my family called Snowy, who would nuzzle and roll in the snow every time we stopped, and would regularly take hearty mouthfuls of snow to hydrate. One of the younger, faster dogs, who we called Goldy after his golden fur, was so keen to run that every time the claw brake was pressed into the snow, he looked around to the driver with a questioning stare. ‘Why have we stopped?’ he seemed to say, “Let’s go!’ When my husband or I were driving, we could be heard talking to the dogs, encouraging them or telling them it was time to slow down or time to go.
The kennel staff, who were checking in on the teams throughout the trail, would applaud the dog teams and call out encouragement and praise as they passed. Not to the drivers, but to their dogs, with which they clearly have close relationships. The staff were both firm and caring, providing high expectations and also high support of the teams.
School leadership is all about high expectations and high levels of challenge for our staff, married with high levels of care and support. This ‘holding environment’ means that our teams feel ‘held’ while also being trusted, supported and expected to be expert professionals.
- Hold on.
The main instruction to those of us driving a husky team for the first time was: Always hold on and never let go. Because if the driver steps off the claw brake and lets go of the handle bar, her team will bolt off without her, sometimes with her family still sitting in the sled.
In school leadership we need to stick with our teams, hold on during challenging times, and also hold on to our purpose, holding the line on why we are doing what we’re doing. Part of ‘holding on’ is also about being responsible for those in your sled, and ensuring their safety and their experience.
Reflecting on the metaphor
Of course, like any metaphor, this one is flawed. Teachers are not trained dogs. Teaching and leading in schools is of course complex, multi-faceted work. But I still found this a useful reflection. The leadership of a husky team is less linear and hierarchical than it first appears. There is nuance and an ecosystem of relationships. All members of the team, from the driver at the back, to the lead dogs at the front have an important role to play and are integral to the team.
Bearhill Husky was an example, in my view, of good leadership in action. Leadership that is ethical and at once empathetic and firm, caring and cautious, meticulously organised and with the capacity for well-informed agility. It is ultimately about relationships and the way that everyone in the organistion works together, from the dogs and the team for each sled, to the wider Bearhill staff who ensured the smooth running of what was an inspiring and magical experience.
Our work in schools, too, is about relationships. In schools there are similar machinations behind the scenes by leaders, teachers and all staff to ensure the best, safest, most optimal learning and experience for students. We can benefit from knowing our people and our context; trusting the people and the process; being agile; working hard even and especially when that work is not being noticed; encouraging and supporting staff; and holding on to vision, purpose and process.