One of my good friends, Simon, recently shared with me a stunning account of the life of a real shepherd. The account he gave is quite unlike what the ordinary guy who grew up in Accra, Kumasi or southern Ghana in general know about shepherds and their flock.
Simon grew up in the Upper East region and for most of his childhood and teenage years he was responsible for his family’s sheep and goats. He took them daily for grazing, watered them, fed them, carried the weak and stubborn ones and accounted for them daily to his father.
While Simon today is now a successful entrepreneur living in Accra, he tells me that his childhood life as a shepherd has shaped his presently high level of professionalism and leadership skills. I totally agree because you’ll love to be around Simon; his care, empathy and passion for people is so infectious. He is so caring that he’s one of the partners who sponsor the social programmes of Osei-Kusi Foundation as a way of empowering needy young people.
Simon taught me that sheep can be very stubborn, but a good shepherd must be there for them at all times. I learnt for the first time that sheep sometimes lick or kiss the shepherd out of love, but because their tongue is as sharp as a razor, the kiss of love by a sheep is actually an infliction of pain on the shepherd! There were many times, he said, when he had to leave his flock behind and go look for a missing sheep that was stuck in the mud or had strayed away because he needed to account for all the sheep to his father on a daily basis.
Of all the interesting stories Simon shared with me, I thought the most fascinating one is how some of his sheep would stop right in the middle of the Tamale-Ouagadougou road, which is one of the busiest motorways in the country, to lick salt off the street. Sheep love to eat salt, and salt often drops from the cross-country trucks carrying the mineral substance to Burkina Faso. When a sheep smells salt while crossing the motorway, it refuses to care about oncoming vehicular traffic. The sheep would stop right in the middle of the motorway to lick it to the peril of its life. No amount of screaming, pulling, pushing or beating can make the sheep move from the road. As a good shepherd, the only way to save the sheep from being killed was for Simon to risk his own life to carry the sheep off the motorway to a place of safety.
The truth is that many of the most successful leaders in history were once shepherds. Indeed many of the greatest religious and political leaders like King David herded goats and sheep. In fact, Jesus Christ, the greatest leader who ever lived, who presently commands the largest followership in the world made up of 2 billion Christians, also categorically described himself as ‘a good shepherd’. This means that there is an important connection between knowing how to successfully shepherd sheep and goats and leading human beings.
What do humans and sheep have in common?
Whilst there are many animals in the world to compare humans with, the sheep appears to be the animal with most of the behavioral characteristics of the ordinary human being. To be a good leader therefore, one needs to understand sheep and the art of shepherding. Let’s take a quick look at a few characteristics of sheep, which would also apply to human beings in general.
Sheep, unlike many other animals such as ants, locusts or crocodiles, always need a shepherd or a leader; otherwise they will get lost, get killed, or starve to death.
Sheep cannot defend themselves easily in the absence of a good shepherd or leader.
Sheep are fragile, they often get sick, fall into holes, are stolen, suffer injuries and so on, and so they need the help, comfort and love of a good shepherd.
You’ll agree with me that all of the above characteristics of sheep also apply to human beings.
Characteristics of a good shepherd
A shepherd is simply a caretaker or tender of sheep, goats or cattle. Here are some of the key qualities of a good shepherd, which every leader must emulate in order to successfully lead other people.
A good shepherd loves the sheep because, without deep love for the sheep, he would easily give up. The sheep often get themselves into trouble, such as by fighting with each other, going where they should not go, and so on. It takes a lot of sacrifice on the behalf of the shepherd to care for his or her sheep.
A good leader must also love and care for the people he or she leads, and must not care only about their output at work but also their health, their families, their hobbies, and every area of their lives. Followers will drop everything to follow a leader who genuinely cares about them.
To be called a shepherd is tantamount to being called a servant of the sheep. In other words, you’re the minister of the sheep. O how we need to explain what the word ‘minister’ means to our ministers of state and ministers of the various religious groups. Ministering or leadership is really about serving and not lordship over the people.
The chief shepherd is a chief servant of the sheep. Jesus changed our perception of leadership by calling the leader a servant, and also demonstrated this by washing and cleaning the feet and caring for his followers. In the same way, as a good leader, your duty and calling is not to be the boss but rather the servant of the group. You must be willing to get your hands dirty; you should not simply shout out orders. A good leader does not only get results; he leads in a way that others can mimic his lifestyle of service to humanity.
Knowing the sheep
Shepherds know the number and state of their flocks. They count them at least twice a day and walk through their sheep regularly in order to examine those who are weak from injury, pregnancy and sickness, and care for them.
In order for a leader to be caring enough, it is important that you pay the price by spending quality time with as many individual members of the group that you can in order to know them as individuals as well as collectively. You should take a personal interest in the people to discover their interests and skills; to know their goals and dreams and what motivates them. You cannot effectively lead a group, organisation or nation whose citizens you do not know very well.
Feeding the sheep
One of the most critical jobs of a shepherd is to feed the sheep. Therefore, a shepherd must regularly find the right pastures for the sheep to graze and take them to the riverside or provide water for them to drink.
Without food, the sheep will die. In the same way, a good leader must feed his or her sheep. You must feed them physically; that is, if staff have to be paid at the end of the month, you must ensure that they receive their salaries on time and you must also ensure that the salary is enough for them. If you pretend to pay people, they will pretend to work for you, so pay your team well. Other forms of food include motivation. A good leader motivates and encourages his team regularly.
Humility is the habit of service and shepherds need a lot of that to take care of sheep. Humility means that leaders pull rather than push, teach rather than command, inspire rather than berate. Thus, leadership is less about displays of power than the empowerment of others.
Magnanimity and humility are two virtues that cannot be separated. Together they constitute a unique ideal: the ideal of the dignity and greatness of man. Magnanimity makes us conscious of our personal dignity and greatness; humility makes us conscious of the dignity and greatness of others.
Magnanimity means giving credit where it is due. A magnanimous leader ensures that credit for successes is spread as widely as possible throughout the organization. Conversely, a good leader takes personal responsibility for failures. This sort of reverse magnanimity helps other people to feel good about themselves and draws the team closer together. To spread the fame and take the blame is a hallmark of effective leadership.
Takes care of the flock
Strengthen the weak and the sick
Rules lovingly and gently
Takes care of themselves
Worry about their own health
Rules harshly and brutally
Gathers and protects the sheep
Gives their best to the sheep.
Abandons and scatters the sheep
Keeps the best for themselves
Shepherding begins with one’s heart and extends to the skills and abilities they bring to the table to serve as a leader. Like the shepherds of old, one must have the skills, the authority and, above all, the heart of service to successfully lead others.
Author: Dr Kofi Osei-Kusi is a life coach, speaker, and consultant.