Sheepdogs can teach us how to lead

“Those sheep are terrible!”

That’s something you hear quite often at a sheep-dog trial. Sometimes you will see run after run where the sheep split and race frantically in several directions. One might jump a fence and run into the woods, while another plops down on the ground and plays dead. You think, “Crazy sheep! How can any dog handle sheep like that?”

But then you will see another packet of four or five sheep, from the same flock, on the same course, walking through the course so calmly that you might think they have been trained.

Then you realize it’s not the sheep that are different—it is the attitude and skill of the dog and handler. A good shepherd will encourage such confidence in his or her dog that when the sheep get crazy, the dog will calmly lie down as instructed and let things settle. The dog uses its brains so the sheep can use theirs.

A calm and confident Border Collie provides a great model for a leader in any community or organization. Not far from Sycamore is one of the world’s greatest schools for conflict resolution: the Lombard Mennonite Peace Center. Its Executive Director, Richard Blackburn, will explain to you that the key ingredient for turning destructive conflicts into opportunities for growth is the ability of effective leaders to become “circuit breakers.” Such people are willing to stand up for their convictions, but they also respect others and, most importantly of all, they know how to settle things down.

Conflicts are a natural part of community life, but matters get out of hand when group anxiety begins to escalate. People feed on each other’s emotions. Even those who might not feel personally threatened soon begin to get swept up in the anxiety of others in the group. Soon someone starts singling out scapegoats to blame for the mess. “We wouldn’t be having this problem if it weren’t for that guy,” they say; and people who want to get along will go along with the thought. Still others may want the conflict to just go away. They want, above all, to go back to a settled state, even if that means that plans for progress get shelved. Eventually the target problem people are run off and plenty of other people learn to pull their heads in and stop participating.

Genuine “circuit breakers” don’t get swept up in the mess. They acknowledge the anxiety around them, but refuse to participate in it. They demonstrate genuine care for persons in the conflict, no matter what their views, but at the same time keep focused on the mission of the organization. They speak of that mission and they encourage everyone to let go of their anger or fear while moving ahead. They speak up without blaming—rather than trying to fix everyone else, they work to fix themselves.

A good shepherd once asked, “If the sheep break away and run, what’s the first thing you should do?” Answer: “Lie your dog down.”

If you calm your dog it will use its brains so the sheep can use theirs. So too, if you have leaders who care for the people and their mission, but help everyone calm down, everyone can regroup and get on with doing great things.

This article appeared in the Daily Chronicle March 11, 2011. Page A2