The Leader as Shepherd

Image source: B4bees
Image source: B4bees

I was invited by a lecturer in the Business School to do a session of guest teaching on one of his modules. The students on this module were full-time International MSc and MBA students. Long time subscribers of this blog might remember that the same lecturer had invited me to do a guest teaching session a couple of years ago. You can read the blog post I wrote about that session here.  He requested that I teach the same topic, The power of organisational and leadership metaphors, which I did two years ago.

At the end of last week’s lecture, one of the students asked me “what my tleadership metaphor was?” Instinctively, I said ‘leader as servant’. This metaphor has religious underpinnings and it is drawn from the teachings of Jesus in the Bible. I told the students that this metaphor is easier said than done because it requires you to sacrifice your ego for the greater good of the organisation.

A few days later I remembered another preferred leadership metaphor which I wished I had also mentioned to the students – ‘the leader as shepherd’. This is also a metaphor that has Biblical references. In the Bible, Jesus is portrayed as the ‘divine shepherd’ who leads and protects his flocks.

The ‘leader as shepherd’ metaphor reminded me another leader as shepherd reference made by Nelson Mandela. Growing in Ibadan, Nigeria, in the 80’s and 90’s, it was a common occurrence for nomadic cattle herders from the Northern part of the country to roam with their cattle in the suburbs. Thinking about it now, I remember that they were usually leading their cattle from behind not the front.

Mandela stated in his autobiography, Long walk to freedom, that the shepherd  “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.” 

Mandela’s autobiography helped popularised ‘leading from the behind’ style of leadership. By leading from behind, the shepherd is able to observe how his flock is doing and keep an eye on them. The shepherd uses his staff to nudge and poke straying sheep to prevent them from leaving the flock.

I wish I had remembered all this last week but it will be useful content for a future guest teaching session.

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