I have been thinking (and writing) a lot about leadership lately:

Abdication of leadership: the siren call of embarking on massive projects or transformational endeavours (like Agile) without having done the hard thinking to define strategic goals and laying out the road map to get from here to there.

The power of self-organizing teams: how a wise leader can ensure that a team gets great and complex things accomplished by laying out a clear goal.

Today’s theme is about leadership when failure is not an option. The kind of leadership required for an extraordinarily complex task when you just can’t afford to make a mistake.Dog sledding and the Iditarod — a 1000 mile dogsled race from Nome to Anchorage, Alaska — was my inspiration.

My dog sledding experience I went dog-sledding with my family: It was minus 25 degrees Fahrenheit. We each had 12 dogs in front of our big ungainly sleds. The dogs – in our case owned by Jessie Royer, an amazing lady who came in 4th place in the 2015 Iditarod –are raring to go. The trick was that we had to hold on to this sled and let the dogs take you around tight curves on a mountain trail for 20 miles. In other words, we had to trust the dogs to maneuver while recognizing that if we let go of the sled, the dogs would leave us in the dust.

Start with the goal and develop a detailed execution plan: 

The goal of the Iditarod is obvious, the trail is well-traveled (though often hard to see in snowstorms and at night), and there are other folks running the race at the same time. You might compare this to an SAP installation or taking a company public or doing a big deal or launching a new product. These things are not mysteries: they are done all the time with lots of opportunities to go awry. The leader must be exceptionally clear about the goal and path to get there.

Select the team for skills and abilities

Dog sledding is clearly not a situation where self-organizing teamwork will work – after all, we are talking about dogs, not people. However, I think the dogs qualify as a high-performing team. They are smart, incredibly strong and love to run. The team is comprised of a group of specialists who have been groomed (sorry) to play special roles. They respect each other and each others’ roles. The sled team needs two very strong lead dogs who set the pace, keep the other dogs in line and respond to directions. The other twelve dogs have key roles as well. The next two dogs, swing dogs, help steer the sled in a very special manner that avoids having the sled fall off the track. The wheel dogs are the brawniest, because they bear the weight of the sled; they also have to be calm because the sled is rattling around behind them all the time. The team dogs are just that: great team players; they get along with each other, put their heads down and run hard.The leader must take the time to define roles and carefully select the right players.

Ensure the team has the resources needed

In addition to getting the right team in place, there is an enormous logistics challenge. The average dog burns 12,000 calories a day on the trail, and mushers typically have their own special concoctions. All this food—literally tons of it—must be purchased, packaged, shipped and distributed to the roadhouses that the musher expects to stop at. Something on the order of 8000 booties (bright colored little things to protect the dogs’ feet) must get to the race. Harnesses and towlines, warm clothes, mittens, goggles, food for the musher, it goes on and on.The leader must be willing to invest to ensure that the right supporting tools, people and money are in place.

Anticipate the unexpected

The leader must anticipate every possible contingency, be confident that every detail has been thought through, and follow up to ensure that things have been done correctly. Preparation is not limited to the pre-race; despite growing exhaustion during the race, the leader must continuously take stock and revise plans based on weather, the condition of the dogs, and her own physical and mental state.Contingency planning is a must: expect the worst and be prepared.

Commit to the task 

The Iditarod is a slog. It’s cold, dark much of the time, and lonely. To keep warm and help the dogs, the musher is poling all the time. The mushers who are successful are incredibly serious about accomplishing the task. Everyone around them must see this commitment and be dedicated to the task themselves.It may not be for everyone, but when it works, it’s magic.