Given the option of being labeled a sheep or a sheepdog, which would you rather be?
Being called a sheep is perhaps the most common negative image of followership–often intended to portray mindlessness, weakness, simplicity.
Who wouldn’t rather be a powerful and productive sheepdog?
I’ve been reading recently about shepherding practices in the Middle East. Sheepdogs indeed play a valuable role in helping the shepherd to corral and defend the flock.
But the sheepdog is not what’s important. The sheepdog’s strength, stamina, vigilance, and power do not exist for its own welfare. Of value to the shepherd, the foundation of his livelihood, is the lowly sheep. The sheepdog can be sacrificed for the protection of the sheep, but not the other way around.
Both the sheep and the sheepdogs are followers, taking their orders from the shepherd and responsible to him. They are united in a single purpose: the preservation and flourishing of the flock.
The sheep and sheepdogs are both important, but they play different roles. The sheep grow and develop, multiply and mature in order to increase the stock. The sheepdogs serve to guide and defend the sheep, so that they can engage in their work under the shepherd’s supervision.
Generally, leaders and followers have different roles. But even within followership, there are differences in our varieties of contribution. Within the pool of subordinates, some members take on roles that are more oriented toward support of those who are “on the front lines” and doing the “grunt work.” We may think of secretaries, executive assistants, HR personnel, and custodial staff that are necessary for enabling the sales, marketing, and manufacturing teams to do their work.
Being in a sheepdog-like follower role is actually a sacrifice. Some people join an organization with a desire to do the front-line work, but are willing to take themselves out of a beloved role in order to facilitate the work of others. They remove themselves from the limelight, from the acclaim that comes with being a top seller or producer, in order to support the efforts of others–all for the fulfillment of the shared, overarching purpose.
The sheepdog is not the focus, and thus can seem expendable and replaceable in a way that the maintstream followers are not. But the sheepdogs are necessary nonetheless.
The challenge is for the sheep to fully utilize the freedom created by the sheepdogs. With their support and under their protective gaze, the sheep are able to engage in their role without distraction or worry about secondary matters. The sheep should value and appreciate the sheepdogs and engage to their fullest in fulfilling their role. Similarly, the sheepdog should be diligent to do its tasks, and to appreciate and value the sheep.
So how do you see yourself in your followership? Are you a sheep, or a sheepdog?
What are the best contributions that you can make? Is it a classic, mainstream contribution to the organization’s endeavors, or is it a supportive, guiding role, which helps to create the environment that will maximize the sheep’s effectiveness–and thus the effectiveness of the organization as a whole?
Are you content with your role? And do you value the roles fulfilled by others?
For encouragement and guidance in understanding and applying yourself to following with excellence and helping others to do the same, see:
Embracing Followership: How to Thrive in a Leader-Centric Culture (by Allen Hamlin Jr; Kirkdale Press, Feb 2016)
Find other recommendations for various aspects of followership on our Resources page.
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