#121: Do You Lead Like a Trail Boss or a Shepherd?

When I was a young manager I was a trail boss. Now that I am a bit older (and hopefully wiser) I am trying to be a shepherd.

Shepherd leader, sheep

What’s the difference you ask?

The trail boss is the guy in charge of the cattle drive. He bosses the cowboys around and is responsible for getting the cattle to wherever they need to be. As the name ‘cattle drive’ implies you ‘drive’ cattle. You get behind the cattle and drive them, push them, and holler at them to keep them going in the direction you want them to go. When some of the cattle split off in another direction you round them up and drive them back to the herd.

Before I became a Christian I was a trail boss. I tended to drive my employees, push them, and yell and holler to get them to do what I wanted them to do.

A shepherd, on the other hand, moves the flock of sheep by leading them. Sheep are social animals who don’t like to be alone, they have good memories, they are followers by nature, and they don’t like loud noises and yelling.

As a Christian, I kept running into Bible verses about Jesus being a shepherd, and Jesus telling the disciples to be a shepherd. In John 21:16, Jesus tells Peter to “shepherd my sheep” (some translations say “care for” or “tend my sheep”).

Since most of us have had limited experience tending sheep it’s a bit hard to really understand what it means to shepherd sheep. Tending sheep is more than feeding, it includes caring, leading, guiding, and protecting the sheep.

Peter provides the elders with a great description of what it means to be a shepherd leader. He is speaking to the elders as an elder—he is one of them, but he comes with the authority of being an apostle of Jesus Christ.

Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, serving as overseers–not because you must, but because you are willing, as God wants you to be; not greedy for money, but eager to serve; not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock. (1 Peter 5:2-3)

There are four characteristics of a shepherd leader in this short verse:

1) Shepherd Leaders recognize their role is to be a shepherd

To be a shepherd caring for a flock means to feed, care, lead, guide, and protect the sheep.

Lesson for Us. Being a shepherd leader means our role is broader than often construed in the secular world. We need to care about the whole person, guiding, leading, and protecting them.

2) Shepherd Leaders know the flock belongs to God

The flock may be your employees, but they were created by God, and in that sense are all His children.

Lesson for Us. Shepherd leaders realize that they are ultimately responsible to God to care properly for His created beings.

3) Shepherd Leaders serve as shepherds for the right reasons

Godly leaders serve voluntarily, not because of what they receive, and not begrudgingly or out of obligation.

Lesson for Us. Shepherd leaders lead out of a sense of duty to serve, not out of a desire to make themselves rich and powerful.

4) Shepherd Leaders serve as an example to the flock

Godly leaders are not “do as I say not as I do” leaders. Their walk matches their talk.

Lesson for Us. Shepherd leaders lead by example, following the example set for us by Jesus.

People in our organizations are not like a herd of cows that can be driven from point to point. Instead of leading like the trail boss we should lead like shepherds who love and care for their flocks. If we lead like shepherds we will let our light shine before men so that others will see it and glorify our Father in heaven (Matthew 5:16).

Join the Conversation

As always questions and comments are welcome. Which type of leader are you, a trail boss or a shepherd?  Which type of leader do you prefer to work for?


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Category: Skills | Leadership Development

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  • What a great, simple lesson on leadership. I think early on in my police career, without realizing it, I tended to be more like a shepherd. Partly because of my type B personality. When I became police chief I discovered at times I needed to be more directive, but the shepherd approach has still proven most effective. People know when you really have their best interests at heart. Thanks, Ron.

    • Ron says:

      I wonder if you are in the minority as a shepherd leader in law enforcement? It seems like a field where the trail boss is much more common. Its good to know that you’ve found being a shepherd leader to be effective!

  • Thank you for sharing your wonderful life changes! That’s beautiful.

    • Ron says:

      Thanks Mary Lou – In some ways it is painful to look back and see all the mistakes I made over my career, but I’m still trying to get better and follow the Lord more closely.