The 2,000+ Year Leadership Model
I have been thinking about sheep lately.
Maybe it’s all the nativity scenes I keep seeing around town.
Or, perhaps it is the book I just finished up on the importance of taking on the mentality and persona of a shepherd as you lead others. When you think of leadership, the likelihood that shepherding comes to mind is pretty low. Many imagine tailored business suits, designated parking spots, and CEO titles. Culture has done that to us. It has defused the aroma of leadership as progress, aggression, and power.
Sheep are simple-minded. This is nothing personal against the people that are being led, but when you imagine them as sheep they match up fairly evenly: they are unsure which direction to go, they need protection, and they will make mistakes. Because of that, people do not need a threatening force barking orders from the back, but rather a leader willing to, well, lead the way.
Dwight Eisenhower, one of the greatest leaders of the last century, understood this clearly. He rose to the highest level of in both the military and civilian realm, leading the Allied troops to victory in WW2 and was elected two terms as president of the United States.
Eisenhower was a strong proponent of leading from the front. To illustrate the power of leading by example, he would often stretch a string or chain out across a table and ask those in attendance what would happen if he pushed the string from one end of the table to the other.
The correct answer, for those following along: “There is no way of knowing.” The loops and bends of the string would follow the path of least resistance and it would inevitably end up as a tangled mess.
He would then ask those is attendance if instead of pushing, he pulled the string along the table. By leading the way of the string, it would follow suit, mimicking the turns and speed of the finger leading it. The string would get to where it needed to go and it wouldn’t end in a frustratingly bunched mess.
Without realizing it, Eisenhower was advocating a New Testament leadership model. Without realizing it, Eisenhower was describing the way ancient and modern-day shepherds lead their flock: from the front.
One of the most famous Psalms depicts the leadership style of a shepherd. Take a moment to read the Psalm, paying attention to highlighted portions. When we read this Psalm with its fullest intent, we realize that leading as a shepherd has major implications for us.
The Lord is my shepherd, I lack nothing.
He makes me lie down in green pastures,
he leads me beside quiet waters,
he refreshes my soul.
He guides me along the right paths
for his name’s sake.
Even though I walk
through the darkest valley,
I will fear no evil,
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff,
they comfort me.
Notice these few highlighted sections, because these apply directly to the way we lead.
makes me lie down. A good shepherd knows what is best for this flock. He knows their needs, often before they even realize they have them. Take note, the sheep do not have the choice on when and where they are going throughout this entire Psalm. Leading like a shepherd means that sometimes you will make your flock do things they are unsure about, knowing that it is what is best for them.
he refreshes. Leading others is exhausting, but it should never feel exhausting to be led by you. Although a good shepherd sometimes leads the flock to where they do not want to go, the flock should never feel depleted or overextended. Shepherds know the limits of their flock. Like a good coach, they know when to push them and when to nurture them in order for their fullest potential to shine through. Leading like a shepherd means leaving your flock refreshed.
darkest valley. This is one of the biggest misunderstandings of this passage, but one that has huge application. Notice that just before there is mention of darkest valley, the psalmist claims that the shepherd has led them down the right path. Frankly, I never connected the two, but a full-time shepherd would understand this completely. A shepherd has to lead their flock through a variety of terrains to find food for them: highest elevations and lowest valleys included. Leading like a shepherd means thickening your skin and leading your flock on the right path, even as you walk through the most difficult terrain.
they comfort me. A good shepherd not only protects his flock, but ensures they are comforted. This does not mean that the sheep get what they want from the shepherd or that they do not encounter difficult circumstances. The shepherd knows what sheep need and can see beyond them to reach that goal. Leading like a shepherd means knowing the ultimate needs of the flock and comforting them as you strive to reach that goal.
There are many qualifying attributes of a shepherd. They often put the needs of their flock above themselves, guiding them to where they need to be not just where they want to be. Shepherd are thick-skinned, yet compassionate; stern, yet comforting. They fend off lions and bears with merely a stick to protect their sheep, and must hold each sheep under water lice infestation breaks out. Although the sheep are blind to all their shepherd does for them, they know he cares and always come to the sound of his voice.
As you self-reflect on your own leadership, try comparing yourself to a shepherd. Do you level up?
Perhaps when you think of leadership from now on you won’t just imagine polished shoes and corner offices, but green pastures, quiet waters, and the ruffling sound of sheep moving about. Perhaps there is something to this 2,000+ year leadership model after all.