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illustration of a dog team, lead dog in front
figure 1  

 

lead dog. A team or task leader, typically one who has or is granted significant responsibility. A lead dog may or may not remain accountable to superiors. Literally, the lead dog refers to the dog that leads a sled team, setting direction and regulating speed.reference 1 The lead dog does so at the direction of the musher, that is, the human in charge of getting dogs to gang up and pull things around.

Use of “lead dog” appears to differ significantly from that of “alpha male,” “leader of the pack,” or “top dog.” While top dogs and leaders of packs surely engage in manipulation of group dynamics comparable to those employed by alphas and lead dogs, the former are more often portrayed as loners. They are American individuals who are “natural” leaders, that is, those who (appear to) do nothing to gather and maintain followers: they simply have them. At most, they have climbed to the top by being tough and wanting to be best, not because they seem to have any particular wisdom about what to do.

Similar to alpha male, lead dog implies having not simply power but also responsibility. These terms speak not only of individuals, but also of the integral part they play in the smooth functioning of society. Similar to top dogs, figurative alpha males seem to have more than a bit of machismo attached. They are more likely to have “won” the position, while lead dogs will have “earned” it. The alpha's domain is the pack, the lead dog's is the team, and this would seem like an even more significant difference. Unlike the alpha, in charge of an otherwise idependent pack, “lead dog” implies a team leader within a larger hierarchy and organization. That's not always how it gets used, of course.

1. Wikipedia contributors. 2008. Mushing. Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation. Accessed Feb 14 2008 from http:// en.wikipedia.org/ wiki/ Mushing.

 

 

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illustration of a female wolf raising her tail as seen from behind. spacer
figure 2

Robert Crandell, chairman of American Airlines in the late 1990's, was clearly using the term to describe the one solely in control when he uttered a favorite homily, “If you're not the lead dog, the view never changes.”reference 2 Looked at closely, his saying suggests that being in front means that you do not have to look at another dog's rear end. It suggests that being in front is the same as being in sole control. Of course, on the sled the lead dog may have the best view; yet he still must obey the commands of the musher on the back of the sled.

In another item in the Business Section, the Times quotes Andrew Liveris, chairman and CEO or Dow Chemical, who clearly means that he is delegating the lead: “You need a lot of huskies pulling the sled, but you’ve got to have a lead dog,” said Andrew N. Liveris, chairman and chief executive of Dow Chemical. “I can’t be everywhere, so I confer my clout on Dave,” he reportedly said, referring to David Kepler, Dow's “sustainability officer,”reference 3 who reports to Mr. Liveris.

I think Liveris is closer to the spirit of the term, or at least its origins.

2. Bryant, Adam. 1997. This Lead Dog Still Barks, but Has a Bit Less Bite. New York Times, Jan 12. Accessed Apr 17 2008 from http:// query.nytimes.com/gst/ fullpage.html? res= 9502E 3DE1438F9 31A25752C0A961958260.

 

 

3. Deutsch, Claudia. 2007. Companies Giving Green an Office. New York Times, Jul 3.

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About the illustrations: In Figure 1, the pooch in front is the lead. Notice how calm and assured she looks, how responsible. © 2008 Jupiterimages Corporation.

Figure 2 is a reminder that it is a matter of perspective. The illustration shows a female wolf “flagging,” that is “position[ing] her rump before the dog she wants to mate with and lift[ing] her tail up and to the side, offering her anus and vulva for him to sniff and lick while gazing back at him with a relaxed demeanor indicating her willingness to receive his attentions.” Perhaps some dogs would be just as happy to be behind, even if the view doesn't change too much. Image from wolfhowl.org. Used by permission.

4. Lupus, Ebon. 2008. Lupine Behavior (Part Two). Wolfhowl.org. wolfhowl.org. Accessed Apr 16 2008 from http:// www.wolfhowl.org/ ethology.php.
see also: mush; pack mentality
cf:
alpha male; leader of the pack; top dog
Last updated: July 5, 2008
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