Five Leadership Lessons from Herding Goats

Five Leadership Lessons from Herding Goats

Last month, as part of the Shapiro Family fellowship, I spent a day learning about goat herding. Goats were first domesticated over 10,000 years ago in either Turkey or Iran, making them one of the oldest domesticated animals in the world. They’ve been found in the foothills outside Jerusalem, where our group learned about herding, for thousands of years. Many early biblical figures herded sheep and goats, and they were common sacrifices in the ancient temple.

Unlike their distant relative, the sheep, goats are considered to be more independent and curious, much like the employees in a professional firm. Along with the other Shapiro Fellows, we were going to prove our leadership by moving a herd of goats from their grazing area over to another spot about 100 meters away. It seemed like an easy task – after all, if Neolithic Man could figure out how to get a goat to follow him around, how much trouble could 14 emerging leaders have?

If You Work Alone, the Goats Go Nowhere Fast

Petting a goat did not earn hist trust – he was onto me.

Our group’s collective experience with goats came from petting zoos when we were kids, so we were starting fresh. When we went at the herd, we each tried our own thing. Some of us pet the goats, others started clapping around them. We tried saying “Come” and “Let’s Go” in different languages (unfortunately of the five languages spoken on the trip, Goat was not one of them). We tried petting the goats, negotiating with them, and a few members of the team tried avoiding them. After a short time, we realized that while we might have moved the goats around a little, we weren’t making much progress at getting them to our destination. We looked like your typical professional services firm, where each partner has so much autonomy they may as well be working on their own. When everyone worked by themselves, the goats moved around a lot, but they didn’t go anywhere.

Maybe We Can Scare the Goats

Clapping caused the goats to run around – maybe we can re-bill it as a wellness program.

One thing we learned was that if you clapped behind the goats, they’d run away from the noise. So we all started clapping to scare the goats in the right direction. We had become partners managing by fear, and it wasn’t working very well. With everybody clapping in a different direction, the goats just started running around again, unhappy but not particularly productive. We quickly regrouped and decided to build a wall of claps behind the goats, hoping to push them forward with the noise. But the goats were too smart or too stubborn, and soon the wall of claps was in front of the goats. Leadership had moved forward, but apparently fear wasn’t enough to bring everyone with us.

Do The Dogs Know Something We Don’t?

I try to bribe a dog to help us, while his friend looks on and laughs.

Clearly fear wasn’t going to get the goats moving in the right direction, and the goatherd wasn’t sharing his tricks with us. But there were three dogs happily laying around while the goats grazed, maybe they knew something – maybe they were the key to the whole thing. So we started to making friends with the dogs, scratching their bellies and calling for them to come. The dogs certainly liked the attention, and especially liked the belly scratches, but they didn’t do much to help us with the sheep. Mostly, they just laid there. The dogs were the goatherd’s professional staff, but you can’t outsource management. They can add expertise, they can facilitate, and once you get things going they can speed things up, but they’re no substitute for leadership.

Dragging the Goats into the Great Unknown

Due to his green collar and bell, the goat on the right is an obvious candidate for our Goat Leadership Development Program.

I once heard leadership described as dragging people kicking and screaming into the future. Maybe that’s what we needed to do with the goats: drag them to the other side of the mountain. So we each went into different areas of the herd, like a new management team coming into all areas of the firm, and we selected a group of ‘change agents’ in each section (the goats with bells or collars). And then we started dragging our agents of change forward, hoping that the other goats would follow them. As you can guess by now, they didn’t. In fact, we barely got our leadership-goats away from the herd before they started turning around. So we were back where we started, with the goats shuffled up a little bit, but no closer to the destination. If you want to move the herd, you need to move more than a few noisy goats. While we might sound ridiculous, a lot of practice leaders work this way: they want everybody to move in one direction, but they only end up dragging along the people close to them who they can get ahold of.

The Goatherd Makes Us the Fools

The goatherd stands up, says “come,” and makes us look like idiots.

It was getting close to lunch time for the humans, and nap time for the goats, so the goatherd decided to step in and show us how it was done. We all quieted down, he stood up, and said “come” once. Seconds later, the goats were trotting down the mountain, headed to their home. Some of them followed the main road, but when it was faster, they also improvised their own goat trails.

The goats are all moving in the right direction

An impressive trick, but this was a goat herder, not a magician: we wanted to know how he did it. He was modest with the secret: he built trust. The goat herder knew that none of our previous tries: calling, scaring, dragging, were going to work. So he spent days getting to know the goats – petting them, feeding them, and showing them he was a part of the herd. When a goatherd takes over a new herd, he spends days with the old goatherd, getting comfortable with the flock, learning about them, and letting them learn about him. It’s based on this influence that he’s able to lead them so effectively. In fact, when the goatherd wants to move the goats, he doesn’t lead from the front, he leads from the middle. The goats think he’s a peer. This is how you get things done as a leader in a professional firm – not through fear, and not through commands, but through a long process of establishing a common destination, building trusted relationships, and influencing subtly.
And that’s the real lesson we took away from leading goats. When you want to lead people who are curious, creative, and a little bit stubborn, you can’t do it haphazardly, you can’t do it by fear, and you can’t do it by force. You need to lead as a peer, by taking the time to build trust, and with soft influence. That’s the only way you can get the goats home in time for lunch.

By |2016-11-10T10:20:11-04:00August 15th, 2013|Leadership|

About the Author:

David Dworin has spent over a decade helping professional services firms to grow and scale their businesses by developing and implementing strategies that are resilient to change.