Book review - The Shepherd’s Life: A Tale of the Lake District

James Rebanks
London: Allen Lane
Publication date: 2015

One of the favourite metaphors used by writers on leadership, especially those from the ‘servant leader’ school of thought, is that of the leader as shepherd. It is a tempting image: the leader as a humble figure carrying a staff, leading and guiding his or her flock, caring for them, protecting them from wolves, taking them to fresh green pastures where they will flourish. It is not surprising that scholars and even some business leaders are tempted by this metaphor.

Within the first few chapters of James Rebanks’s best-seller A Shepherd’s Life, something had become very clear. None of those writers who wrote so earnestly about the leader as shepherd knew very much about shepherding!

Shepherds, in Rebanks’s telling, are not remotely sentimental about their sheep. Sheep are not cuddly or cute; you do not build relationships with them. The shepherd’s care of his or her flock is motivated in the long run by utility and value maximisation. Sheep do not behave like people (though the opposite, I suspect, is not necessarily true). They can be guided, but there are also times when it is necessary to physically manhandle them. The crook on the end of a shepherd’s staff is not there for decoration; it is there for catching the animals by the neck and holding them fast.

That said, there is plenty of food for thought about leadership in this book. Two points in particular stayed with me. The first is Rebanks’s ‘three rules of a shepherd’:

  1. It’s not about you; it’s about the sheep and the land
  2. Sometimes, you can’t win
  3. Shut up, and go and do the work

‘It’s not about you’ really ought to be painted on the door of every leader’s office, reminding them of this fact constantly. It’s not about you; it’s about the people you lead. They are the ones who make the organisation, they are the ones who create value. A shepherd, like a leader, is useless without the flock, or the people.

I think every leader probably knows that sometimes you can’t win, but when faced with a challenge, we all too often pretend that we can. How often have leaders persisted with a losing strategy, too proud or too frightened to cut their losses and get out while they can? We need the humility to remember, more often, that there are some battles we are always doomed to lose. And as for the third point: talking about leadership will never be a substitute for doing it.

The other point comes when Rebanks discusses his business model. He insists that shepherds only survive in the marginal lands of the Lake District by sticking to what they have always done and doing it well. He and his neighbours are good examples of this, eschewing some of the more modern methods and going back to a strategy of low inputs and high outputs. Yet despite this apparent conservatism it is clear that Rebanks and his fellow shepherds are also engaged in a process of constant innovation and change. Every year they look at their flocks, selecting those with desirable genetic characteristics, getting rid of those they don’t want, buying in fresh stock to improve the strain, always seeking, always questing after something better. This almost fanatical dedication to improvement is one of the main leitmotifs that runs through the book.

This is, in my view, a quite beautiful book. By his own admission, Rebanks could not even hold a pen when he finished school; yet he has produced a story that has resonance far beyond his own milieu in the Lake District. It is worth reading in its own right, not just to pull out thoughts on leadership. Those thoughts have to be sought out and mined for, but they are there, and they are worthwhile.

And, you will learn a great deal about being a shepherd along the way. Whether that helps you become a better leader is up to you.

Morgen Witzel
Fellow, Exeter Centre for Leadership, University of Exeter Business School

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