Leading sheep – how hard can it really be?
As a rule, we tend to look down on sheep, but we have a lot more in common with them than we might want to admit. In this post we’ll look at one would-be shepherd who learned the hard way that sheep are not the passive conformists we think they are, and we’ll build a list of nine ways to successfully lead sheep, no matter how many legs they happen to have.
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Our lexicon is full of ovine expressions, and most do not reflect well on our woolly friends. An embarrassed person is sheepish, lambs are led mindlessly to the slaughter, and the wool is pulled over our eyes as we are being fleeced. In faith stories sheep are the symbol of naive innocence, and the object of sacrifice. If we need someone to blame, we look for a scapegoat. And when the boss asks a question, the sycophant bleats, “yes sir, yes sir, three bags full.”
The negative comparisons equating sheep and man are many. John Muir observed that “Sheep, like people, are ungovernable when hungry.” Mark Twain pointed out that, “To create man was a quaint and original idea, but to add the sheep was tautology.” And with a wink, Alexander Chase quipped that “People, like sheep, tend to follow a leader – occasionally in the right direction.”
George Orwell did sheep no favors when he cast them as blind followers of their political masters in his 1944 allegorical novel Animal Farm. And more recently, the term “sheeple” has entered modern argot, describing “people who are docile, compliant, or easily influenced.”
It might seem that the most utility a sheep can provide is to be shorn for sweaters, slaughtered for supper, or counted while we wait for Nyquil to take its effect.
But maybe we shouldn’t be too quick to judge – have you ever led sheep? Robert Moor tried. He thought it would be easy. He was wrong.
Shepherd for a Month
In his book On Trails, Moor explores how trails come into being, and what that tells us about ourselves. One of his observations was that “a trail forms when a group of individuals unites to reach a common end.” To me that sounds more like a definition of teamwork, just with the emphasis on the byproduct instead of the goal.
It struck Moor that man had been watching animals make these pathways for millennia as shepherds watched their flocks. So he jumped at an opportunity to tend a flock of sheep belonging to an elderly Navajo couple in Black Mesa, Arizona. For three weeks he would be able to study path creation first hand.
Far from paved roads, electricity, or anyone else who spoke English, Moor came face to face with the reality that sheep didn’t really behave like “sheep” at all, unless you knew how to lead them. And as you might expect, he had to learn this the hard way.
The first day did not go well. From the moment the first sheep stepped out of the pen, they were wandering without effective leadership. By ten AM he had managed to lose track of every single one the animals under his care. He winces at his own ‘sheepishness’ when he had to tell the owners what he had done. It took the rest of the day to round them all up.
Over the next weeks, he found sheep were not at all what he had been led to believe. They could by turns be head strong, independent, distracted, energetic, lackadaisical, and self-absorbed, as well as blind flock followers. He validated that they were indeed ungovernable when hungry. And he learned, too, that the life of a shepherd was not one of solitude and serenity, but rather one of constant watchfulness, hard work, and moments of sheer panic.
In sum, he found that sheep were indeed a lot like people, and leading them was a lot like…well, leading.
Like Sheep, Like Man
Maybe if Moor had read the study Intelligence, Complexity, and Individuality in Sheep by Lori Marino and Debra Merskin he would have been a little more circumspect. Here are some surprising facts about sheep perhaps you didn’t know:
- Sheep have a robust spatial memory – they can learn complex mazes and then remember how to negotiate them 22 weeks later.
- Sheep facial recognition is on par with that of humans and other primates – they can memorize the faces of fifty other sheep, and then demonstrate recognition two years later, even from photographs taken from different angles; this ability extends to human faces as well.
- They are self-aware, demonstrating that they can recognize themselves in a mirror and use it to investigate parts of their bodies.
- Individual sheep can learn and follow a fairly complex set of behaviors that lead to an expected outcome, and can exhibit emotions akin to frustration when those expectations are not met, and joy when they are.
- Sheep yawn contagiously, just as humans do.
If that’s not enough to change the way we look at sheep, writer and naturalist Mary Hunter Austin lived with them for over a decade. She noted a familiar social structure within the flock. There were Leaders who tend to stay near the front, Middlers who find comfort in the center of the flock, and Tailers who lollygag at the back.
In his personal experience, Moor found this social dynamic to be even more complex. Within a single flock there could be multiple leaders, different ones emerging under different conditions.
Even more intriguing: occasionally a flock would stop following a leader, and move off in a different direction. Sometimes the leader who had just been abandoned would scurry to rejoin the group at the front and pretend to lead in the new direction. They seemed to crave the appearance of leadership in the way a politician might shift his platform in order to stay ahead of a fickle electorate.
It doesn’t get much more human than that. And that’s why what Moor learned about shepherding makes a lot of sense as a way to think about leading people. Here’s what we can take from his experience leading sheep.
Secrets of the Successful Shepherd
Beginnings are important. The trajectory of the first hundred steps of the flock as it leaves the pen tends to dictate the next thousand; once moving, it was very difficult to get them to change direction. This “path dependence” can have long-term impacts that are very difficult to overcome. It is far easier and wiser to carefully guide the first few steps, than to force a reversal later in the day.
You need a plan. The shepherd has to stay a few moves ahead of the sheep. Think ahead and plan the route – where is there water? Where is there good pasturage? Where do we want to be during the heat of the day? How can I arrange things so that it will be easy to turn them towards home when the time comes?
Create Desire. Utah sheep rancher Moroni Smith once wrote that the secret of successfully leading sheep is not to bully them, but to “create a desire within the sheep to do the things that the herder wants them to do.”
I don’t know if Eisenhower had any shepherding experience, but clearly he had something similar in mind:
Don’t micromanage. One shepherding axiom is “An anxious herder makes a lean flock.” Constant hovering and meddling interferes with the business of being a sheep. The best leadership gets the right sheep to the correct pasture, and then lets them get on with what they do best. Micromanaging every action only raises anxiety, lowers trust, and sets everybody on edge.
Beware group-think. Moor found that individual sheep would usually scurry to keep up, but small groupings of seven or more were at greatest risk of wandering off from the rest of the flock. Even as those few sheep found the illusion of safety in their small group, the shepherd has to look to the safety of all members of the flock and keep them moving together in the same direction.
Watch Burr-Face. Moor had to contend with a few nonconformist sheep. One such knock-kneed ewe he called Burr-face because of a seed pod permanently stuck to the wool on the left side of her face. She always seemed to be wandering in a different direction, and he was constantly having to rein her back in. But occasionally, her different approach would lead it to a succulent patch of wildflowers that the others had missed. Instead of automatically, pushing her back to the flock, he learned to look at what she had found first. Sometimes he would bring the flock to her instead of the other way around.
Lead from the front. Wise shepherds will train some of the leader sheep in the flock, and then hold on to them from year to year. By leading from the front with just a few experienced sheep, and using the power of example, it becomes much easier to get the rest of the flock to follow.
Canine accountability. Moor didn’t have much luck with the untrained dogs he inherited, but good sheep dogs can aid the shepherd by working at the back and flanks of the flock, barking and nipping at heels to keep the animals together. Like a good accountability system, laggard sheep always knew there were consequences for falling too far behind.
Track progress. The term ‘belwether’ comes from the practice taking a castrated ram (a ‘wether’) that was a flock leader, and placing a bell around its neck. The shepherd could then track the movements of the flock by listening for the bell. To get the flock where you need it to go, you first must know where it is.
Leading Sheep – The Takeaway
Moor found out the hard way that sheep aren’t the placid flock-followers we’ve been led to believe they are. He learned, too, that leading sheep takes effort, planning, and experience, and requires vigilence, example, and mental agility.
But if we apply what he learned in shepherding to our own efforts in leading, we stand a good chance of successfully setting our flock moving down the right path.
And that starts with seeing our ‘sheep’ for the very different individuals that they are, and thinking more deliberately about how we can lead each one of them well.