Everything a Leader Needs to Know Can Be Learned in Sheep Camp

Barb Krantz TaylorBy Barb Krantz Taylor

Leadership DevelopmentEarlier this year, I wrote a blog about what I learned about leadership from training my young dog in agility. This past weekend, I participated in a “sheep camp” learning to work this same young dog (and her more experienced daddy) on livestock. And once again, the leadership lessons abounded.

No two leaders are the same.

Even though these dogs are daddy and daughter, their styles of leading sheep, responding to my cues, reacting to situations, and recovering from errors are drastically different. So are the leaders who report to you. We have to learn the “range of normal leadership behavior” and help our leaders find their own style that leads to their best productivity and results.

Provide the direction but stop micromanaging.

There is a lot to be said for having the freedom to let leaders learn from experience and then praising when they “get it right.”

My baby dog, Firefly, is new to working livestock. There is a lot of natural talent in there but she is just starting to figure it all out. Like all new leaders, she needs to experiment with how forceful to be, how much pressure to apply without causing unnecessary stress, and how to influence the choices of a group of “free-will beings.”

My job this past weekend was to communicate to her where I wanted her to take the sheep. Her job was to move them there. My past experiences told me she might be too aggressive or too distracted by things OTHER than her job (butterflies, horses, goats and cattle were all nearby!). And if that happened, she’d lose control and all sorts of chaos might ensue, so I watched closely—ready to correct and guide. But when I took a deep breath and just observed, she learned pretty quickly how to correct her own mistakes and adjust her style, speed and timing. I learned that my attempts to help TOO much actually caused the chaos I was trying to avoid! How often do you stay near but not over-manage? How often do you observe and praise the right things?

It’s interesting—and potentially eye-opening—to find out what happens when you’re out of the picture.

My more experienced dog, Catcher, has a tendency to lose focus when he works sheep. Whether he gets bored, lacks confidence, and/or my leadership is not what he needs are all probable causes. Well, I happened to disappear once (okay, I actually tripped over the sheep and landed face first on the ground) and all of sudden, there was my boy, taking over and taking charge. The need for him to actually DO something important (e.g., prevent me from getting run over by five panicked sheep) lit him up. He had a job to do, he had to do it as I was unavailable to help, and he figured it out. Are you giving enough of the right kinds of experiences to your leaders to keep them engaged, utilizing their talents and staying alert to the most critical work that needs doing? Some responsibility and challenge are good things to bring out the best in others.

The takeaway: The leadership lessons you need to become an extraordinary leader are right in front of you. I would welcome the opportunity to help you learn those that will make the biggest difference in YOUR leadership.