Learning about leadership from shepherding

“I’ve always had dogs; they are an important part of family life. One of my earliest memories is being sat on my Grandpa’s knee watching ‘One Man and His Dog’, the 1974 version. I’d never realised the deep parallels that shepherding has for the modern values and emotionally intelligent leader, until my 40th birthday when my family bought an ‘experience day’. I was intrigued at the prospect of spending a day, along with my family, exploring the shepherds, like those I used to watch on the TV, do what they do. The principle is simple. The dog responds immediately, directly and clearly to people’s spoken and unspoken behaviour. Their feedback is free of the normal filters of politeness or politics that bedevil human-to-human feedback. So, working with a dog provides the opportunity for powerful learning about how we communicate, lead and relate to people.

This experience sat building and growing within me, until my eldest daughter, Hannah, decided that farming - in particular shepherding - was for her. Working with Derek and his dogs helped us all to experience something very different. We have prototyped and piloted our work and have got outstanding results for the individuals and teams that we have worked with. Our exercises are deceptively simple and don’t involve handling the sheep. In fact, minimal contact with the animals is encouraged. Much more important is watching and listening to both the dog and sheep, picking up clues about how status and power play out in their world, whilst at the same time being open to and exposing our own assumptions about status and power in our world. The most challenging exercises involve working with your dog and a flock of eight sheep in the open field. Whilst you’re close to the sheep, you are building the dog’s trust and respect so that they choose to work for you in a short time trial.

It is exhilarating and confronting. If the dog doesn’t trust you or senses any doubt, hesitation or annoyance, then your dog will disengage and you have broken rapport. Early learning came to me first. I tend to assume that people will be OK and know what to do and how to cope with challenges. This is really positive and empowering and encourages resourcefulness, yet it can also mean that I underestimate the impact of uncertainty or fear. It also suggests that my propensity for people connection is lower than my drive to accomplish goals, so I have to turn up my sensitivity and ask and explore whether my teams are coping when times are tough or busy. As with the dog, I must ‘remember to check-in’, or just like working with a dog and sheep, they will check out! Secondly, I noticed that sometimes, when I’m leading, I wait for subtle signs of approval before clearly expressing myself.

As a coach this is a really useful strength as it helps me to be connected. When leading my organisation, it can send a signal that I’m not fully committed to my preferred course of action, and boy did the dog pick up on that, by either ignoring me or being confused! It was instant and very clear feedback. You learn about each other and your team dynamics too, noticing how different people worked with different dogs. What I find is that delegates all unearth different learning and then during the course of the day, bring it all together. What I love most is that people leave with a meaningful and actionable set of insights, outputs and outcomes, which clients often tell me ‘builds their plan for next steps’, as a leader or for teams at work.”

Author

Stuart Jackson