Be a shepherd not a cowboy in leadership

March 16, 2016 10:12 pm Leave your thoughts

Over these past months every time I think about agile, the more I think that it is paramount that agile practitioners understand what it means to be a leader in an agile environment especially for those using scrum methodology. This is not only limited to those in their official leadership, instead it applied to everyone in the organisation.

I would like to use these two pictures below to illustrate what I mean.


Looking at the above pictures, you’ll understand that in both scenarios they are all trying to herd the sheep to a particular location. There is one major difference though, the child is actually leading at the front while the group of cowboys cracked the whip from behind. It seems there is much more order and tranquillity in the first picture.

Leading from the front requires less pressure to the team while leading from the back (cracking the whip) requires significant amount of authoritative power. The cowboys needed help from their horses and whip which can be seen as a tool or a symbol that they have authority over the herd. The young boy looked like as if he simply walked in front of the herd on the surface.

A quick research on Mediterranean sheep herding (much like described on those biblical stories) showed that the that kind of sheep herding does not happen overnight. Time are taken to teach the sheep to follow the shepherd and much care is given to the sheep. Basically this is due to the fact that sheep follow the one that they trust as a friend.

So how does that translates to our leadership and management techniques?

Based on the analogy above I’d like to point out a few things.

On being a shepherd and leading from the front:

  1. Leading from the front creates more morale as the team is free to do what they need to do as long as the leader guides them to the correct directions
  2. Leading from the front requires complete trust that the team will perform admirably and is heading to the right direction
  3. A lot of investments in time is needed to build the teamwork and culture. High performing empowered team doesn’t happen overnight
  4. In addition, it is not wise to breakdown a stable team due to the investments that have been made
  5. Of course in order to achieve that high performing team, the “kaizen” culture (continuous improvements) needs to be ingrained within the team’s core values
  6. Being a shepherd to the team means that you are their servant leader, mentor, guide and helper when needed (a team can get lost just like the herd)

On being a cowboy and leading by authority:

  1. Herding from the back requires the leaders to significantly push the team using the power vested in them (whip and horses)
  2. With power comes the will to control. This will become a problem as soon as there are more than one leaders seeking to control where the team is going. Just like the picture above, the herd will move based on where the cowboys are, creating a lot of movements and dust. The team may lost it’s real course and head to the direction of the leader with the biggest whip, which may not always be the right direction
  3. That being said, having competing powers will cause confusions for the team.
  4. The team does not learn much. Where the whip and horses comes from, that’s where they will move away from. Means that there is a danger that team creativity might go down with that kind of management
  5. There will be waste ‘muda’ when the team is constantly under pressure and thus producing substandard work.
  6. Quicker for short term

The above points should give you some ideas that leading from the front is much better than leading by authority. This is mostly because by doing so, the leader will empower the team and foster creativity. This method of leadership however requires a degree of training and coaching capabilities of the leader. The investments at the front looked a bit more however the long term benefits are a lot.

Leading by authority on the other hand is much more straight forward, basically the leader steers the team hard to a direction using their position and authority. However everything becomes controlled and the team doesn’t learn anything new, in fact creativity might suffer. I have to day that in short term and crisis situations when you don’t have much time to discuss, this might be a suitable leadership style.

In conclusion while I think it’s much better to use the shepherd (leading from the front) method, there are still values to rely on authority within reasons. If we are talking about what should be our default behaviour though, then it should be leading from the front.

This might be a topic that a lot of you have opinions about, so feel free to leave some comments so that we all can learn more.


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