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Using a plasma channel produced by an ultrashort laser pulse, we have studied the laser triggering and guiding of a positive leader from the tip of a 2-m vertical rod standing on the bottom plane of a 7-m plane-plane gap. The purpose of this setup was to reproduce in the laboratory the electric field conditions leading to the onset of a positive upward leader from a ground rod as a downward negative leader is approaching during a thunderstorm, in order to demonstrate the working principle of a possible future laser lightning rod. The leader triggering properties of the laser-created plasma channel have been studied as a function of the synchronization of the laser pulse with the voltage impulse applied to the gap. We show that the laser pulse reduces the inception voltage of the leader compared to its normal value and that the laser plasma channel guides the propagation of the upward leader at a velocity ten times higher than that of an ordinary leader, with a significantly lower charge per unit length. We show that laser guiding of the leader significantly reduces the breakdown voltage of the gap and that the effect of the laser channel at the end of a lightning rod can be compared quite favorably with the effect of an additional metal rod of the same length.