What kind of leader are you: Sheepdog or Shepherd?

In his book, Hearing God, Dallas Willard offers the comparison of sheepdogs and shepherds to differentiate between two approaches to leadership. Since we live with a herding dog, Boomer – our Welsh Pembroke Corgi – and my position of pastor shares some roots in verbiage with the term “shepherd”, this comparison caught my attention.

Willard’s critique is that what passes for leadership is too often merely getting others to do as they are told. Enter the sheepdog, or in my case the herding dog. The instinct of these dogs is to herd, move or corral the object of their efforts with no desire for that object being herded having input into the decision. I’ve watched our corgis over the years try and herd our family, and herd groups of larger dogs and animals. Boomer wants everyone to be together. He gets a little nervous if the family is strung out over several rooms in our home. He will go from room to room checking on us, not resting until everyone has been corralled into the same space. But there’s no “conversation” about it. He just wants to impose his will, or instinct, on those whom he is “leading” or herding.

If you stop and look, you will notice this same approach is often employed in the name of leadership. The leader, boss, or chair may have an idea or objective toward which they hope to move the group. They would like those they are leading/herding to do as they are told. But as Willard states it, “to manipulate, drive or manage people is not the same thing as to lead them.”

This is particularly true in the organization we know as the church. Here a group of assembled volunteers who compose the body of Christ have come together for the purpose of community, mission and discipleship. There is an obvious need for leadership in such gatherings. And, there is often no lack of opinion or agenda – sometimes several – wishing to “tell people what to do.” But our model is not the sheepdog, but the shepherd – as in the Good Shepherd.

In John 10, where Jesus uses this metaphor to describe himself and his approach to leadership, he suggests that the sheep will hear and know his voice and follow him. Because of the trust and respect, built from the confidence of a caring relationship with a shepherd who has been in their midst and invested in the flock; a different non-coercive model of leading emerges. To quote Willard, “the biblical shepherd simply calls as he calmly walks ahead of the sheep.”

These two views of leadership will continue to compete in organizations, including the church. Sheepdogs will point to the end results of having moved the group forward, and tell you that such “bottom line” efforts are worth the cost of their coercion. Somewhere along the way they failed to consider those whom they are leading may have input to offer toward the group goals. They’ve missed the bi-lateral opportunities of learning and growth a more open and collaborative style of leadership offers.

Shepherd leadership often results in a group owned goal or objective being attempted and reached. It does usually require more work, effort and dialogue. It’s slow cooker work. It offers room for disagreement and the free choice of disengagement – you may remember that some of Jesus’ earliest followers fell away.

In the interchange of ideas, conversation and negotiation the bi-lateral nature of this style of leadership also provides opportunity for growth and the strengthening of the group’s own identity and resolve. In the end, sheep follow shepherds more out of a relationship of trust and agreement than they would a sheepdog.

In these early days of this new year perhaps it would be helpful to ask one’s self, “which type of leader am I?” Do I view those I work with and attempt to lead as persons to be herded toward my will and my ways? Or, am I willing to invest more of myself in the relationship by engaging those whom I lead in a process of dialogue, conversation and consensus building?

This three or four week juncture into a year is often a time when those goals and hopes we set back at the beginning of the year get abandoned. We fall back into familiar patterns of work and leadership – many times because we realize achieving the goal is going to take more out of us than we first thought. In other words, well intentioned shepherds too often revert to behaving like sheepdogs. If this speaks to you, here’s hoping you might resist your herding instinct and give shepherding another go.


Filed under Leadership, Ministry, Pastors, Uncategorized

3 responses to “What kind of leader are you: Sheepdog or Shepherd?

  1. Dan,

    I enjoyed reading your insightful post. My preferred style of leadership is that articulated by Robert Greenleaf in his book ‘The Servant as Leader’. Greenleaf states, “The servant-leader is servant first… It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first. Then conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead. That person is sharply different from one who is leader first, perhaps because of the need to assuage an unusual power drive or to acquire material possessions…The leader-first and the servant-first are two extreme types. Between them there are shadings and blends that are part of the infinite variety of human nature…”

    This Servant Leader style of leadership is often not appreciated, especially in our current corporate competitive environment, but it can be effective if allowed to flourish by the organizational culture in place. All organizations present challenges to those who would aspire to lead, but I believe those who attempt to ‘herd’ or ‘clear-the-path’ for others can find satisfaction (and success) for all involved.

    Thanks for sharing

    • Thanks for your comments Jerald. Seems to me Jesus was the ultimate servant leader. It’s funny how that is often the lesser chosen model sometimes even for those who are in ministry!

    • Sharon Green

      One must be a follower first to become a leader. One must study and do the groundwork, if you will. Becoming knowledgeable in the field of interest builds credibility. A self appointed leader can gain credibility as he or she grows in wisdom. Therefore, the individual becomes a potential leader.

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