Being a shepherd: a reflection on the characteristics of leading.

A couple of days ago I had the very real pleasure of being invited to give a Fireside Chat to the participants in one of the Queen’s Nursing Institute Scotland Leadership Development programmes. The Queens Nursing Institute is an amazing organisation and (in their own words):

‘supports, develops, and inspires Scotland’s community nurses and midwives to become agents for health improvement and catalysts for social change. Together, we are building a healthier, fairer, kinder Scotland.’

My ‘chat’ and conversation was centred around what I considered to be the key characteristics and marks of leadership. Having written more than my fair share on this topic over the years, not least in this blog, I tried to distil some of the main things I have learnt and experienced about leadership wherever that may be held or focussed. Here are some of my reflections:

For me the critical mark of all leadership is the need to be authentic, to mirror the reality of your self, ‘warts and all’. To be the real and raw ‘handmade’ person you are. Too often leaders and managers seek to mould themselves into the likeness of another, and that includes a mentor, or to shape themselves to what they expect the organisation or system demands and wants from them. That is not authentic – it is wearing a mask of pretence and usually (especially when the going gets tough) the masks slips and falls. Authentic leadership requires us to develop an honesty which allows us to be open, transparent and truthful with both ourselves and with others. In my experience such authenticity is what brings people in a team or organisation alongside a leader and strengthens the ability of all to be who they are. We need more people who walk their talk.

A mark of that authenticity for me is that it requires vulnerability. Vulnerability is often perceived as a negative characteristic or quality, but I very much believe that being vulnerable and being open to vulnerability are marks of essential humanity, not least in relationship to others. Vulnerability in itself is not negative; it is only when that vulnerability is mis-used or abused by another that it can become harmful and damaging. Being vulnerable is an openness to the unknownness and sometimes pain of encounter and the risk of losing your protection of self in order to achieve a greater self-discovery. In vulnerability there is a strength beyond the cracks and the brokenness.

A leader who can be strong enough to be emotionally mature and grounded, who is able to show emotion and empathy, to demonstrate the limitations of their own knowledge and skill is one that others can see something of themselves within.

Another element I reflected on was how important it is that leadership has a sense of purpose and direction about it. This is all the more important when particular context or circumstance is taken into account. In emergency situations for instance we do not look for a laissez fair attitude, a consultative engagement as primary, but rather when the chips are down, we want someone to be inclusively directive whilst appreciative of the diversity of those they lead and the requirement to shape action or response to the capacities of an individual. Occasions and contexts matter and whilst a leader should not be dominated by them a failure to be sensitive to the realities of the world around and an inability to be practically pragmatic helps no-one.

Over the years I recognise that the best leaders I have been privileged to work and be alongside, are individuals who whilst they have a clear purpose, direction, and vision, have invested in the people around them rather than just the achievement of particular goals. It used to be that being described as a ‘people person’ was considered something of lesser worth and value than someone who was influenced and dominated by process and models, outcomes, and outputs. Thankfully leadership and management approaches now recognise that the greatest asset in any organisation or system are the people and that nurturing and developing them is an essential task of team and group leadership.

There are other qualities I could add, such as the importance of determination and the ability to keep going despite obstacles or circumstance; the development of a resilience which isn’t just a springing back to doing things the way you have always done them but an openness to the new and innovative. I think of the ability to get to know the landscape and environment around you and to appreciate that the world we live in changes continually and often dramatically; or the recognition that we all change and need to adapt and be open to our own physical, mental, and emotional journeys.

I shared with the nurses I spoke to that over the years I have found strength in some of the metaphors and models for leadership, including the maieutic which considers a leader from the perspective of a midwife. But more recently, and in no small part, from reflecting on the life of my late uncle I have started to consider the metaphor of the shepherd as resonating with me in terms of what it conveys about leadership.

I have mentioned my late uncle Donald before. He was by modern descriptors someone who had a learning disability and who struggled with verbal communication, though those who knew him well could converse with him easily. A man of quiet behaviour and few words but of determined focus and comfortable routine, like many of his island age, he was a crofter-shepherd. In his case this was an art he carried out in the barren though colourful moorlands of north-west Skye.

Over the days and weeks, I spent with him I began to understand what the life of a shepherd was and much of it strikes me as descriptive of the essence of modern leadership in any context. It wasn’t a syrupy or romantic image or reality. it was hard and real. It included the need for preparation and planning, making sure you were appropriately dressed and prepared for the weather to change at any minute; a humility that recognised that you can never do things on your own but that shepherding is always a collective act even if alone; the appreciation of the need to know your environment and the limitation of your own knowledge; an openness to be moulded and changed by circumstance and terrain; a willingness to take your lead from those who ostensibly you are there to lead; to be able to read the happenings of the moment and to listen with a silence where sound can be heard in all its subtle invitations. It was a life which sought to become attuned to the rhythms of nature and which was rooted in the humble awareness of human insignificance in the face of the elements and the rawness of death and birth, grief and renewal.

But being a shepherd then was always about creativity and ingenuity, especially in the absence of easily accessible modern technology; it was a practised art where skill was developed over years of practice and the insights of failure and error as much as the moments of success. You had to be adaptable and innovative and able to use what you had around you.

Whatever your model of leadership, whatever metaphor speaks to you, there is a sense of dynamic movement about leading – ours is the task both as leaders (in whatever way) or as those who are led, to move towards the creation of communities and organisations, teams, and societies, where the voice of all are heard and the value of everyone is upheld, and where together we can all flourish and thrive, which is the daily task of social care.

Donald Macaskill