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Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Managing, Mushing, & Motivating

Managing, Mushing, & Motivating

By Rex Ryker
Doctoral Student of Educational Leadership
Bayh College of Education
Indiana State University
Ryan Donlan
Assistant Professor of Educational Leadership
Bayh College of Education
Indiana State University

Weather-Induced Visions

Successful leadership is Dog Sledding.  In particular, it is managing, mushing, and motivating.  We came upon this thought as our Midwest recently transformed into a wintery, frigid landscape reminiscent of Jack London’s Call of the Wild.
 Our otherwise temperate surroundings were more befitting for teams of dogs, weather-proof gear, and maneuverable sleds than they were for our typical transport, as countless school leaders found themselves figuratively mushing toward uninhabited offices – a leader’s call of responsibility, or as some might say, an instinctual respite. 
In actuality, many of us could not make it out of our homes or neighborhoods.  The going was tough, yet this gave us more time to “think” of our responsibility each other.  Among countless friends and colleagues came a strength of team conviction – one of neighbor helping neighbor to accomplish urgent tasks that none of us could do alone.  How sad for those who felt they were without a team.
This synergy was as important for us at home that week, as it often is in school.  We know that in education, the terrain is often unforgiving; the need for a team approach to any challenge is critical.  What we do, week-in and week-out, could in actuality be considered managing, mushing, and moving, a seasonal metaphor, yet one that’s both evergreen and ever needed.  Consider the following:

In the Arctic, the most impressively outfitted musher would be shivering, trudging hopelessly without a well-organized and trained team to power a sled toward a destination.  Only when the gangline runs from lead dogs, through the team, and to the musher’s control, does the operative collaboration of dog sledding exist. 

In K-12 education, what is our gangline, the line that allows the combined effort to be greater than the sum of individual effort?  We ask this, as educational leadership is much akin to mushing: it takes an interconnected team driven by instinct and training to inspire and to ensure student achievement.

We propose this metaphor not as one of a leader ordering and staff pulling the weight, but as one revealing the deeper, symbiotic relationship of leader and team:  That a living system of interdependence exists in each and every team-based accomplishment, with the leader inextricably linked to the forces that power the journey, which if absent, would result in ineffectiveness.    

The Need for a Team

When venturing into the expanse, a leader must have both vision and the capacity for adventure in order to survive.  Envisioning a destination is one thing; guiding a team to reach it is completely another.  This is where efficacy must transcend personal capacity.  Without a well-organized and cared-for group to pull together, the envisioned destination would never be reached. 
Much as mushers need sled dogs to traverse an arduous terrain, educational leaders need people with whom to share the energy and the challenge of forward movement.  Despite our drive, our passion, or our intentions, without a team we are simply standing on a sled, ineffectually stranded with neither tool nor transport. 

Building at Team

A leader with an understanding of how to build and direct a team knows to capitalize upon the strengths and talents of team members, as each cannot serve in every role.  We could all learn from the fact that lead dogs set the pace and the direction for the entire team while swing dogs guide the rest of the dogs in following through curves and turns.  Team dogs provide power, whereas wheel dogs are closest to musher and provide stability. They fear nothing, certainly not the sled close behind.  A misplaced dog will manifest a musher’s management struggle, yet all will perform optimally when correctly hitched into harness and position.

Who on your team holds these roles? 
Is your team in proper alignment?

Consider further parallels to K-12 leadership: Managing scientifically, the musher provides commands, yet also knows when to run behind the sled to assist, knows when to command the team to slow, has the awareness to apply the snow hook (emergency brake), and always knows when to care for the team’s needs.  In this journey, sound management is no one’s apology.

            Buckingham and Coffman (1999) expressed similar sentiment in encouraging managers to focus on their team members’ strengths and talents.  When concerned with aligning individuals to roles, they suggested four major responsibilities of management:

Selecting team members for talent;
Defining the right outcomes;
Focusing on team members’ strengths;
Helping team members to find the right fit. 

More so than the musher, we would argue, the K-12 leader-as-manager must be more cognizant of the team’s psychological needs. Members of the team need clear expectations and purpose.  Outcomes, as well, are an essential part of maintaining a healthy, well-functioning group.    

Driving and Caring for the Team

Gibreath and Benson (2004) explored how supervisor behavior contributed to employees’ psychological well-being. This is all-important when driving a team forward. Applying an expectation to a team member is similar to the musher’s call – applied correctly, it may produce positive stress (eustress) with a desired outcome and even a curative effect; applied incorrectly, it will result in negative stress (distress) with psychological and physical harm (Lazarus, 1993). 
Educational leaders must understand that specific leadership behaviors, such as evaluation and authoritative communication, at needed times, can be stress-inducing strategies with beneficial benefits for teachers and for student achievement (Van Vooren, 2005).  We should not wince from the duty of our call ... the call to "Mush!"
Applying stressors to team members is a tricky game of motivation for leaders, one that must be applied to each individual differently … one not to be taken lightly.  Just as the musher must be aware of the interactions of the dogs based upon each dog’s idiosyncrasies and the context of the interplay, leaders can be more effective if they understand that individuals have particular needs to be met – those that vary among contexts and will have predictable, sequential reactions to distress  (Kahler, 2008).  If we gain a deepened understanding of whom we work, we will be equipped with more efficacious relationships.


Successful leadership is Dog Sledding.  It is comprised of the managing, mushing, and motivating, as well as aligning team members correctly. It involves meeting needs and understanding the reactions to what we ask.  Our best in K-12 leadership capitalize upon these understandings, yelling, “Mush!” and in doing so, allow their teams to reach destinations abound, well-beyond the sum of their individual parts.  


Buckingham, M., & Coffman, C. (1999). First, break all the rules: What the world’s greatest managers do differently. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster.

Gilbreath, B., & Benson, P. G. (2004). The contribution of supervisor behaviour to employee psychological well-being. Work & Stress, 18(3), 255-266. doi:10.1080/02678370412331317499

Kahler, T. (2008). The Process Therapy Model: The six personality types with adaptations. Little Rock, AR: Taibi Kahler Associates, Inc.

Lazarus, R. S. (1993). From psychological stress to the emotions: A history of changing outlooks. Annual Review of Psychology, 44, 1.

Van Vooren, C. L. (2005). A model of school reform: The principal's use of positive stressors to change teacher behavior in title I elementary schools. (Order No. 3191758, University of La Verne). Retrieved from


Rex Ryker and Ryan Donlan are on-campus in Terre Haute, Indiana, each Wednesday in the Ph.D. Residency program.  If you have comments or helpful suggestions on how we can all manage, mush, and motivate through educational inspiration, please consider writing them at or, particularly if you wish to connect on those days when they are working together.

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