Shepherd Leadership: Five Ways of Guiding from Behind

As a leader, Brian rarely told his team what he wanted. When issues arose, he asked, “Who’s got an idea?”  As the ideas surfaced, he cannily waited for the most promising one to surface and then called the question, “Which option seems most likely to succeed?”  When the team had agreed on the path forward, he’d suggest that the owner of the idea lead the way. Along the way, if he saw another team member bring forward good alternatives or challenges, he’d make sure the team slowed down long enough to consider new input.

Brian’s boss once asked him why he didn’t give his staff more direction. “I do give them direction,” Brian replied, “but it’s by limiting the ways they can get off track, not by giving them the track.”

Brian practiced a leadership style popularized by Nelson Mandela: “A leader. . .is like a shepherd. He stays behind the flock, letting the most nimble go out ahead, whereupon the others follow, not realizing that all along they are being directed from behind.”

Successful shepherd leaders are characterized by five habits:

  1. They encourage the leadership of others. In small and large ways, they send others to the front to take the lead in areas where they are the strongest. It may be leading an effort, or it may be bringing out an alternative method or spelling a tired leader.  They give the ‘nimble’ leaders an open runway, removing obstacles and keeping them off the rocks.
  2. They focus on cohesiveness and contribution. They ask everyone to stretch to his or her ability and to offer their best to the team. The team is sacred. Individual interests are encouraged, but are subject to the best interests of the team. Conflicts are encouraged, but productive resolution is mandatory.  Team spirit is kindled.
  3. They intervene only in rare cases. They give others a lot of latitude, and allow for small stumbles as part of learning. They don’t jump in to rescue, but instead allow others to help.
  4. They are the keepers of the stories. They remind the team of their successes and their fun. They explore the vision and direction agreed to by the team. They characterize the team as a powerful unit of creative energy and productivity, not as a wandering herd.
  5. They sleep with the flock. These leaders can barely be discerned from other members of the team. They pitch in and help when the nominal leader needs their skills. They act in concert when the team makes a decision.

Contrary to the popular vision of leaders at the head of an army, carrying the standard into battle, shepherd leaders are unobtrusive. When you see a flock, you sometimes have to look hard to find the shepherd. But their guidance is no less felt for being in the background. These leaders earn high marks for developing their teams and for taking risks on people. They operate by nudging and supporting. And their relations with their teams are characterized by deep trust and loyalty.

Care to try a little shepherding in your leadership?

Written by Marge Combe, VMC Consultant

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