Follow the leader: Shepherds vs. Sheepherders

13 Feb Follow the leader: Shepherds vs. Sheepherders

Hireling (hīr’lĭng) n.

1. One who works solely for compensation
2. One who is employed by another
3. A person willing to perform a menial task for a fee

I grew up in rural Clovis, California on a 2.5 acre ranch house. We had chickens, turkeys, a large garden, a creek running through our back yard, an old horse, and bunch of sheep. I never knew why we had the sheep because no one in our family ate lamb, we didn’t use their wool (although we tried to shear them once), and they were a disaster to take care of. Sheep are not particularly smart, are exceptionally skiddish, and will do exactly the opposite of what you want them to do. I remember spending many frustrating hours trying to drive them from one adjacent pasture to the other.

A close family friend who lived nearby would occasionally come over help us work the property. I was gearing up for an hour long struggle to move them between pastures, when he strolled by with some oats in a small bucket. He spread some them in a single line in front of him, and waited patiently as the skiddish sheep’s interest in the treat overcame their natural fear. As the sheep nervously approached, he would touch them one by one and talk gently to them. These previously untamable creatures became calm, docile, and obedient. After a few minutes, he slowly rose and walked between the gates to the next pasture. The sheep quitely followed, in near single file, and made it to the other pasture without difficulty.

Beyond this personal pastoral scene, I learned a valuable leadership lesson that day. The lesson has been reinforced many times over in my own life, in different leadership settings, where the lessons of the Shepherd vs. the Sheepherder have been repeated. There are clearly literary and scriptural corollaries, and I don’t have any intention to cheapen those by referencing them in this setting, but some analogies are appropriate:

  • Shepherds actually know their sheep, and have earned their trust and confidence; Sheepherders could care less about the sheep, and are only trying to score a buck.
  • Shepherds lead from the front; Sheepherders drive from the rear.
  • Shepherds know the right way; Sheepherders are looking for shortcuts.
  • Shepherds talk softly (and carry a big stick!); Sheepherders yell and scream.
  • Shepherds rule with love. Sheepherders coerce with fear.
  • The sheep willingly follow the shepherd; the sheepherder forces by compulsion.
  • Shepherds will leave the 99 and search for the one; Sheepherders don’t know the one, and are bothered by the other 99.
  • Shepherds would protect the sheep with their life; Sheepherders run away at the first sign of wolves.

To the sheep at my boyhood home, it was glaringly obvious I was a hireling, a fledging sheepherder, and as such the sheep responded accordingly. But what had taken me hours to do was literally accomplished in minutes under the guidance of a true shepherd.

Turns out those sheep weren’t as dumb as I thought – they were just waiting for the right kind of leader.

  • Matt C.
    Posted at 21:58h, 14 February Reply

    Like your blog; esp post on misys which was one before this one, I believe.

  • mike s.
    Posted at 00:13h, 01 March Reply

    i am doing family devotions and will use this in my intro. thank you

  • Primary Care Possibilities - Kaiser Leads the Way (again) « Crossover Healthcare
    Posted at 21:49h, 12 March Reply

    […] Wow. High performing health systems do more with less, do less for each patient (because the patients do more themselves), and involve a team approach given their aligned incentives all focused around a patient centered experience. I also love that they are willing and wanting to share their experience, to help others see the possibilities, and working together to improve our health as a nation. Isn’t that the essence of leadership? […]

  • SB (One cent at a time)
    Posted at 23:45h, 05 June Reply

    This narration reminded me of a lecture I attended, I sat down and wrote a blog after reading story, about applying the same principles in managing money. Money and people are both our valuable resources, Shepherd fits to both scenarios. Here is the blog

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