The experience I had recently would be one of the most extraordinary things I’ve ever experienced in my life thus far. That is learning how to herd sheep!
When you see it on television, it looks so mesmerizing. The sheepherder ‘guides’ the sheep through the meadows with ease. The sheep all move in unison while the sheepherder is at the back of the flock. Yet, the sheep seem to know where to go. Every. Time.
What was my experience like? Before stepping into the meadow, I was told the sheep weighed from 50 kg to 65kg. There were about 20 of them. I was instructed with safety guidelines on how not to get injured while inside the sheep’s ‘ring’. Upon hearing how they can take my knee out, I felt more like a sheep than the sheep themselves.
I was now ready to go! The easy part was I didn’t have to force the sheep to stand up. As soon as I got close enough, they all stood up and stared at m
e. I need to make them move across the field for the difficult part and make them walk to form a figure “9”. How do I get them to move in unison and in the direction I want them to go? I pointed in the direction they had to go towards, but they just stared at me. I tried to lead them by walking in front of them in the direction I wanted them to go towards, but they all just stared at me again. This went on for 5 minutes. Eventually, I stood behind the flock, and alas, they all started walking!
Two stragglers seem to resist following the rest. They strolled behind the rest and started eating the grass below their feet. I thought to myself they were either tired or lazy. But I noticed one was walking with a limp. How do I get them to move along with the rest? Do I need to push them or force them to go? No, that was not it; I had to walk right next to them (about half a meter). Then they started to walk. Each time they slowed down, I walked closer, and they started again. Finally, I thought this was it. Easy peasy! So I thought.
Getting them to walk in a straight line was the easy part. Making them turn was going to be interesting. And yes, it was! To get them to turn, I walked up to the front of the herd and walked towards the direction I wanted them to head towards. Then they just kept turning in circles. Finally, after nearly 20 minutes of trying to get them to walk in a figure “9”, I gave up. I didn’t get to accomplish what I had intended. There was a sigh of relief, but there was a lot of frustration.
This experience taught me two things:
1) I can relate this to managing at work
2) We are all part of a system
Before I get into how this is similar to managing at work, I want to go over the systems. We are all part of a system (like it or not), but we already belong to one. In our lifetime, we will go through several systems. The system is what I will compare to the ‘matrix.’ It is real, but at the same time, it isn’t. We develop our habits and thinking in a ‘system.’ It becomes us, and we become part of it. To break away from this will take a lot of determination and self-awareness. To understand the system that we are part of, we need to disconnect to ‘connect.’ This will help us deal with how we think and manage our life. Just as the flock of sheep got up to walk, they are part of that system. As I approached them and tried to guide them, I became part of their system as they became part of mine. Now granted I failed to accomplish the task, in the 30 minutes I’ve spent with them, we were part of a system. If I had enough time and perhaps practice, I could have had better luck to ‘control’ the system.
“If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more and become more, you are a leader.”
– John Quincy Adams
So then, how is sheep herding like managing at work? One can say we are the sheep, as we go through our life at work. Get up, go to work, come home, sleep, start over.
When I approached the sheep, they all stood up. It would help if you gave enough attention but not too much. You still need to have that ‘safety’ space to create independence. When I tried to ‘lead’ them from the front, you could see the confusion in the sheep’s eye, and they didn’t move. Similarly, you may get some resistance or confusion from your team when you manage from the front. In most cases, it will be the latter. Why is that? Leading from the front can create some blind spots for the leader. Your interpretation may be their assumption. Just as I was trying to ‘guide’ the sheep to the direction I wanted them to go towards, they assumed I was walking and not to follow me. When I went to the back of the flock, this is when they all started to move. Leading from behind, create independence, and they will move!
What about the two stragglers that were behind the flock? They represent the team members who are either struggling or didn’t feel that they fit in. The two sheep didn’t follow the rest immediately. They only moved when I went closer to them than the rest. After that, they slowly gathered their senses and followed the rest of the flock. When a manager notices that there is a team member who is falling behind, special attention is needed. This doesn’t mean you give 100% attention. This means as a manager or a leader, you can’t forget about them. To get them up to speed, they also require independence. Just as I didn’t push the stragglers to follow the rest, I got closer than the others. Some team members may need a bit of leadership guidance or coaching than others. Eventually, you will be guiding the team. Even if the result is not what you had expected, the process you helped and guided them through is what matters.
Sheepherding gave a lot of insight into my leadership style.