Lead Dog

A series of desert walks leads to an insight about leadership at work.


At the trailing end of a peripatetic foursome, I look down the trail. The men have gone on ahead a little way; my sister and I are bringing up the rear. This late afternoon walk in the spring of 2011 can’t quite be dignified with the title of a wilderness hike: the mostly level, sandy trail is groomed, and boasts trail signs at every intersection. But it isn’t your everyday walk around the block either: we are in the midst of the distinctive flora of the Sonoran Desert.

Every vista offers desert versions of plants I know from home: marigold, mallow, honeysuckle, poppy. More enticingly, it offers plants not much found where there can be snow six months of the year: brittlebush, creosote, palo verde. And, of course, there are the cacti: saguaro, barrel, prickly pear, and more varieties of cholla than enough. Except for the occasional slight breeze, however, it is still. Except for the clink of our walking sticks, it is quiet. The fauna that presumably go with this delightful flora are nowhere to be seen. My sister and I judge this a likely consequence of walking in the heat of the day. Wise in the ways of the desert we are.

A week later, our visitors head home and the Big Guy and I head out on the trails again, just the two of us. This time I take point. The flora are unchanged — still spectacular — but today the fauna have come out to play. Itty-bitty lizards (their proper scientific name, I believe) skitter across my path; unidentified but varied birds flap up out of brush piles to perch on cactus arms and peep/pipe/sing/screech, depending on their variety; Gambel’s quails run around apparently aimlessly as is their wont, their unmistakeable topknots bobbing; and Harris antelope ground squirrels — chipmunk look-alikes to those of us from northern climes — give away perfectly good hiding spots by bolting for what they clearly think is even better cover. The desert seems, well, alive, if not downright crowded. Where were all these guys last week?

Over the next few weeks we tramp from one end of this county park to the other on numerous trails, at all times of day. Usually in the lead, I call out the animals I’m seeing, but the Big Guy usually misses them. One day, stopping to point pointlessly to where a lizard has just disappeared under a desert something-or-other, I am mentally transported back in time to 1998 and across space to Anchorage. A shopping respite from the six-day-per-week pace of this business trip has me standing amidst sweatshirts emblazoned with moose, puffins and the aurora borealis. A quintessentially Alaskan bumper sticker catches my eye. A drawing of a long line of Huskies’ butts, viewed from somewhere way back in the mushing chain, sports this adage: Unless you’re the lead dog, the view never changes. Funny and sort of gross, both at the same time.

Back in the desert again, I belatedly reach this insight: It isn’t the time of day, it’s the position in the walking group. Inadvertently ‘flushing game’, the lead walker sees all the wildlife that is on offer; any followers get only an occasional glimpse of a disappearing tail. ¬†Or butt, as the case may be.

Back at work a few weeks later, I am sitting in a meeting with a faithful client. Well, I’m not sitting, I’m standing by the whiteboard, as is my wont. I’m not highjacking the meeting: they pay me to record the comments, organize the ideas, lead the discussion. As for me, seeing the conceptual framework, having the ‘aha’ moment, finding the trail through the welter of detail — these are why I get up every morning.

As I turn back to the whiteboard to move some content — grouping things for better clarity based on something I have just ‘seen’ — I remember that itty-bitty lizard’s mad dash across the path, invisible to the Big Guy just a few steps back. I look over my shoulder at my colleagues-of-the-day, and wonder if they find this trail we’re on as interesting, as much fun, as I do. Given their position in the walking troupe, not likely. It occurs to me that they might not even know what they’re missing.

Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance tells about a long-distance motorcycle trip with his young son, Chris. One day as they’re belting down the highway, Chris stands up behind his dad and looks over his shoulder, seeing the road coming at them for the first time. He exclaims in wonder, and Pirsig suddenly realizes that the kid’s less-than-inspiring normal view is the back of Pirsig’s leather jacket and head. No wonder the trip doesn’t seem as cool to him.

As we gain seniority in our various realms it can be easy to take the lead dog role as a matter of course. Sometimes, someone is paying us to do exactly that. Sometimes, though, it’s just habit. At work, we lead meetings; in church and community endeavours, we take charge of committees; with family and friends we host events and guide conversations. We start by meaning well, but we can end by leaving no space for others to step to the front. Sometimes the right thing is to step back and let another be the lead dog, to have the thrill of the different view. A view, if you will, of something other than our butts.

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10 Responses to Lead Dog

  1. Vince says:

    I’ve always loved that bumper sticker.
    At first I wondered if putting the shorter people in front would benefit everyone on the trail. But would that translate in the at-work and in-conversation models?
    Thanks Isabel.

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Vince – Well, we could mix it up – short folks some days, younger folks other days. I just love how a saying meant to encourage striving for achievement, for the front position, can carry such a different message in another context.

  2. Dave says:

    Wow! Loved it! Useful advice for those who like to dominate everything in volunteer type organizations and later wonder why the volunteers disappear.
    Reminds me why I do not like to be in large tour groups where only those in front of the pack get to hear the tour leader expound on what it is we are supposed to be seeing.

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Dave – yes, the volunteer chokehold is a documented phenomenon, I think. I’ve seen it happen in churches — so hard to tell someone it’s time to give someone else a chance at using their vision, their energy.

  3. Judith says:

    Enjoyed your segue from trail walking to business. As an enthusiastic amateur photographer, I am almost always at the back of a group because of taking time to compose and snap stuff off to the side. Which is why usually people are not in my photos – the view forward from the back is not inspiring. On the other hand, the most interesting people are often the ones not hurrying to get to a destination and I enjoy talking to them. At work, this would have driven me nuts! Just one more reason I retired.

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Judith – Yes, I have found some very patient and interesting people at the straggle end of groups. It doesn’t always have to be go, Go, GO!!! to be worthwhile.

  4. Jim Taylor says:

    Joan and I belong to an occasional supper group. She comments that there are two, perhaps three, people who tend to dominate every conversation. (No, I am not one of them!) They’re accustomed to taking the lead in other organizations — just the way that many others are accustomed to keeping their mouths shut and their butts planted in their chairs, so as not to take responsibility. But when you get two or three of these “born to lead” people together, conversation turns into a competitive exercise that doesn’t leave much room for the less vocal members.

    Jim T

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Jim – Yes, I was in my forties before I read that the opposite of talking wasn’t listening, it was waiting. That’s especially true when interacting with strong introverts, who need to get it just right before they’ll open their mouths.

  5. Susan Wright says:

    Interesting discussion about the lead dog at work. The situation gets even trickier when the lead dog has position power (ie he/she is the boss). Then he/she needs to learn how to stop and listen to those around him/her. OK I’ll give up this he/she stuff, I’m talking about me. I’ve found that some of the most valuable people on the team often turn out to be the quiet ones in the back who may just raise an eyebrow when I say something inane. It’s usually worth my while to pause and entice them to share their perspective. Great blog as usual Isabel. Thanks.

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Susan – Yes, and think what those eyebrows at the back of the room might do if they had to hold the whiteboard pen! Changing roles can be an eye opener (and eyebrow lower-er) all round.

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