Mushy Leadership


Recently Diane and I had the awesome opportunity to spend some time in Alaska visiting our son Anthony and daughter in law Hannah. It was a wonderful time to catch up on their lives there. Anthony is a white water river guide and assistant manger of the rafting enterprise. Hannah works in the dinner theatre as an actress singer and server. We had the opportunity to raft and to enjoy the theatre. We also had a great opportunity to visit Denali State Park. 


In the park we saw Moose, Caribou, Bears, Doll Sheep, and a herd of ravenous ground squirrels who tried to steal our lunch. One of the interesting opportunities was viewing the dog sled demonstration. We watched the rangers hook up the dogs to a wheeled sled and race around a track. It was pretty impressive. 


Also fascinating was that these dogs were not necessarily the prettiest. The ranger indicated that you will never see any of these dogs in a dog show. Dog sled dogs are bred for effectiveness and not for appearance. 


We learned that Denali’s first superintendent was a veteran dog musher named Harry Karstens, who used a team of sled dogs to patrol the backcountry, looking for poachers. As the park grew, it needed a supply of well-trained dogs. Karstens established the first, and only, working kennel in a National Park. 

“We always joke that they’re the happiest government employees you’ll ever meet,’” laughed Jennifer Raffaeli, the current kennels manager at Denali. “But it’s really, really true!”

Raffaeli looks after this stable of “Canine Rangers.” And while a dog team may seem like a throwback to another era, they’re very much in use today.

“The really amazing thing about dog teams in Alaska is that sometimes they still prove to be the most reliable and effective means of transportation in really challenging winter conditions,” Raffaeli  said. “You know, if you’re out at -50° below, and you try and start up a snow machine, it may or may not start. At -50° below, I go out and say, ‘Good morning.’ These guys all jump up and they’re ready to go.”

In the frigid winter months, these dogs each run well over 1,000 miles, shuttling supplies and creating trails.  They come with a built-in GPS. The dog teams have moved tons of debri and assisted scientists with equipment and transportation to study a wide variety of things in the park in the winter. 


We learned that there are essentially four positions on the dog sled team. The lead dogs apply the mushers commands, set the pace, and ensure correct direction. The swing dogs ensure the team follows turns initiated by the lead dogs. Team dogs provide engine power, wheel dogs play the crucial role of pulling and steering the sled. Additional team dogs can be added throughout the line depending upon the intensity of the load to be carried. 


That was all pretty cool but the most fascinating to me was the training involved for the lead dogs. No dog is just thrust into leadership. Often lead dogs begin in another spot first. The trainer watches the dogs and picks up on leadership cues. At that point a dog might be placed in the swing position. These dogs pull behind the lead dogs and help maneuver the rest of the team on turns. The only communication between the musher and the lead dogs is by verbal commands. The musher may observe swing dogs also paying attention to the commands indicating that they may be ready to attempt a lead dog role.  Not all dogs can be lead dogs. Each dog finds its niche and serves there.


When a dog is observed as potentially ready to lead they are often teamed with an older dog that has been lead for a while. This apprenticeship helps the younger dos learn the ropes and provides security for both the emerging leader and also the rest of the team. 

 Ready for some “mushy leadership” principles? Here are five I have been thinking about from the demonstration.


  1. Leaders do not have to be the prettiest or most popular people on the planet. When Samuel set out to choose the next king of Israel he thought he found his man. He was tall dark and handsome but God had a different plan. 1 Samuel 16:7 But the Lord said to Samuel, “Don’t judge by his appearance or height, for I have rejected him. The Lord doesn’t see things the way you see them. People judge by outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.”


2. Leaders may be born but they are not born made. Every leader needs training and seasoning. 1 Timothy 3:A church leader must not be a new believer, because he might become proud, and the devil would cause him to fall. 10 Before they are appointed, let them be closely examined. If they pass the test, then let them serve as leaders.

3. Don’t neglect the young and up-and-coming when you look for leadership. 1 Timothy 4:12 Don’t let anyone look down on you because you are young, but set an example for the believers in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith and in purity.

4. Good leaders always begin as good followers! Paul instructs Titus on who to choose as leaders. Titus 1:8 He must live wisely and be just. He must live a devout and disciplined life. He must have a strong belief in the trustworthy message he was taught; then he will be able to encourage others with wholesome teaching and show those who oppose it where they are wrong.

5. Older leaders are responsible to raise up the next generation of leadership. Titus 2:In the same way, encourage the young men to live wisely. And you yourself must be an example to them by doing good works of every kind. Let everything you do reflect the integrity and seriousness of your teaching. 


As a church we always need to be on the look out for leaders. I hope these “mushy leadership” principles give you some motivation, encouragement, and hope as we seek to always identify, train, encourage, and deploy new leaders in the church. Look around this week… you see any pups in the wings that God may be grooming for leadership? If you do, please give them a word of encouragement. You just never know!