Its All About Trust, Just Ask Our Sheep

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Some know that farming is my other occupation. It’s a great activity – I learn what sustainability really looks like, it gets me outdoors, I exercise without needing a personal trainer or gym equipment and, believe it or not, it has taught me so much about leadership – in fact I call it my “leadership farm”. Here’s one example…..

We have a number of animals on our property but lets use our sheep as an illustration as they are my favourites.

Because of a constant threat from wild dogs we need to yard the sheep in dog proof pens close to the house at night. At first this presented Megan and I with a few management issues as, during the day, the sheep may need to travel over a kilometre to find decent pasture to graze. Also this was not a simple stroll for them. Depending upon feed availability they may have to walk through a number of gates, go up and down hills and traverse a couple of creeks. Yet within a matter of days we were able to open the gate of the night yard in the morning and wish them a happy day and close the  gate behind them just before dusk knowing they were all safely back (we actually count them just to make sure).  It operates like clock work – though the sheep have no truck for daylight saving and time their return by the sun irrespective of the season.

So how did we do it?

Well the answer quite simply lies not with the sheep themselves but with us, their human leaders. More precisely, it is all about how we support and behave in front of them.

Firstly, we had to create a safe environment for them to graze. This involved having well maintained fences and enough water and feed in each paddock we wanted them to spend the day in. The fences though only set the perimeters within which they graze. What they do within those boundaries is for them to decide. And they thrive in this free range arrangement.

Next we placed a small reward in their night yard to encourage them to return daily. Desired behaviour is rewarded, but sparingly. Also, the few stragglers that at the beginning were a little late in returning home, quickly learnt that their mates polished off the reward mighty quickly so they had to decide whether to follow the system or be mavericks and miss out on a reward. The maverick aura lost its gloss with these guys in a couple of days.

The system works a treat. Importantly we haven’t lost a sheep to dogs since day one.  And this hasn’t come at a cost as we are not running all over the countryside on a daily basis chasing recalcitrant sheep.

So what did we learn from this little experience on Leadership Farm?  Many things actually,  the more obvious ones being that to be an effective leader we need to:

  • Provide a safe working environment
  • Set clear limits within which people work
  • Be decisive
  • Ensure people are appropriately resourced
  • Have clear systems to follow
  • Allow prudent autonomy
  • Modestly reward desirable behaviour
  • Allow learning to happen when mistakes are made
  • Teach something new to your team members.
  • Take an interest in your employees

All of these are fairly obvious (though still regrettably often neglected in organisations). But when you stand back and look at our little system there is one  fundamental make or break pivot point and that is …  our sheep trust us.

Sure we can set up a conducive environment etc. but at the end of the day the sheep do what we want them to do because they trust us implicitly. Without that trust the thing would fall apart.

A couple of interesting considerations about trust are brought into sharp focus when working with animals. The first is that trust must be earned and this takes time. This requires calm, competent, consistent and compassionate behaviour on our part.  The other is that to be effective we must earn the trust of the entire team or in the case of the sheep, the flock. If one baulks at a gate because of a lack of trust they can send the whole mob in another direction sending us back to square one.

Exactly the same happens in work environments however here the lack of trust has much greater consequences. As David Horsager expressed it in a recent article:

“Among all the attributes of the greatest leaders of our time, one stands above the rest: They are all highly trusted. You can have a compelling vision, rock-solid strategy, excellent communication skills, innovative insight, and a skilled team, but if people don’t trust you, you will never get the results you want”…… just ask our sheep!

About the author: This post is by Chris Gandy, founder of Cause and Effective and part-time farmer. Cause and Effective aims to help leaders of cause-based organisations to deliver on their mission by providing insightful information and linking them with affordable subject matter experts.

About B-Cause

B-Cause is published by Cause and Effective. We help good causes find and attract effective leaders.

Thats our take on things. Over to you, please add to the discussion.

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