CEO Coaching: Border Collie Leadership

A friend recently sent me a great Far Side cartoon. A group of sheep is standing in a living room with cocktails, and a dog is at the doorway. One sheep says to another: “Henry! Our party’s total chaos! No one knows when to eat, where to stand, what to …. Oh, thank God! Here comes a border collie!”

If you’ve seen a sheepdog do this in person — I’ve witnessed it at the National Western Stock Show and in Ireland — it’s quite a site! The sheep respond to nips at the heel and eventually cower in a circle or are forced into a pen, perhaps to be fed or perhaps to be slaughtered.

It’s an efficient method for moving tons (literally) of animals, but it’s a poor paradigm for leadership. (You knew I had to make a turn somewhere, right?) I have, however, seen it attempted too many times.

Running to-and-fro and nipping at heels (OK, barking orders) creates a lot of movement, but it’s mostly wasted movement. And the moment the barking stops, all hell breaks loose. The Marines may act this way at boot camp, but the end result is trained people who can operate independently within a structure. Sheep require constant nipping.

Leaders who believe that they alone must run, bark and bite their way to compliance with their herd, er … team, will be left with employees who act like our cloven friends — sometimes compliant, never thinking and not so happy. Not the team behavior you need to succeed. And the funny thing is, the only people who’ll work for a border collie for an extended period are sheep! 

If you’ve fallen into this trap — reacting rather than planning, putting out fires rather than building, barking rather than praising — you may be a border collie! 

You must change to be successful over the long haul. The hard thing is that you can’t just stop nipping at heels! You trained your herd to be compliant but not to take initiative and be autonomous. The sheep must be trained or replaced with initiative-taking animals. You must learn to lead with big ideas and be supportive rather than to bark and bite. 

Border collies are wonderful dogs, but they make poor CEOs.