As a Leader, are you the Sheepdog or the Wolf?


“Be the sheepdog, not the wolf. The sheepdog is the protector of the flock. The sheepdog protects others that cannot protect themselves. The wolf is a coward that prays on the weak. In the Teams, we fight to protect our brothers. It’s that simple. I will always teach my leaders to protect those around them, even if it’s with the most simple gesture or kind word.”

This is what former Navy SEAL Brendan Gleeson describes as one of the key lessons he learnt in this elite organisation.

To help a flock thrive through volatile and uncertain times, a leader’s primary focus should be on creating a mentally resilient culture. Having carefully weighed up the evidence, these are five strategies essential to being a better sheepdog.

  1. ‘We’ trumps ‘me’

Ideas workers are motivated by purpose. Knowing how their work contributes to the greater good is essential for an energised workforce. Leaders who can communicate their mission in a compelling way will increase their employee’s energy levels. No, I’m not talking about ‘Our mission is to maximise shareholder value’ but something that lets everyone know your raison d’être, for example, Ramsay Healthcare’s (RHC) ‘People caring for people’.  Most organisations have these statements framed on the on the wall, but in my experience, it is quite rare for leaders to consistently ‘walk the talk’. If it is done consistently well it will pay dividends. In the last 18 years, RHC have returned 6382% to shareholders versus 417% for the Australian Stock Exchange’s ASX100 index. Only 27% of highly stressed employees in an RUOK? survey agreed with ‘my organisational purpose energises me’ compared to 66% of employees with low levels of stress.

Can your employees clearly describe the purpose of your organisation? Does it excite them?

  1. Acknowledge progress and setbacks

In the Progress Principle, researchers Teresa M. Amabile and Steven J. Kramer interviewed over 12,000 employees, in particular knowledge workers and members of project teams, to discover what motivates them. Respondents said employee recognition is the least effective way to motivate them. Yet, 95% of managers surveyed said they believed employee recognition was the most important way to motivate employees. In their research, the authors conducted an analysis of daily diaries kept by teammates on a variety of projects. Their conclusion is clear: what motivates people on a day-to-day basis is the belief that they are making progress – successful steps forward to achieve a goal (Amabile & Kramer 2011).

Mastering the art of asking ‘Are you OK?’ is essential when a setback happens, because this helps stop little problems turning into big ones.

Do you encourage your team to regularly acknowledge progress?

  1. Encourage physical wellbeing

In the R U OK? Survey, only 42% of highly stressed employees said their employer encouraged physical wellbeing compared with 73% of low stress employees. Physical wellbeing can be encouraged by arranging walking or standing meetings, having flexible work arrangements that allow time for exercise, and gym subsidies. Interestingly, when we asked employees what were the most effective strategies for reducing harmful stress ‘doing more exercise’ rated second after ‘speaking to someone at work’. All other strategies nominated were very expensive for a business, such as ‘take days off’ and ‘look for a new job’.

Do you as a leader encourage wellbeing by modelling sustainable work life integration?

  1. Focus on outputs not inputs

Despite extensive research in Daniel Pink’s book, DRIVE: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, making it clear that autonomy and mastery motivates employees, many employers still operate with ‘industrial age’ thinking. For example, most legal firms operate on the billable hour method, where employees are asked to account for every 6 minute interval. They are evaluated by how many hours they bill, rather than on results delivered. I do not think it is unrelated that lawyers have the highest levels of depression, substance abuse, and anxiety levels of any profession. This mastery factor obviously has massive implications for the rewards, performance management and processes of an organisation.

Do your rewards and processes encourage or inhibit autonomy and mastery?

  1. Invest your time wisely

In 2011 Jennifer Aaker, Melanie Rudd and Cassie Mogilner from Stanford University published a paper titled ‘If money doesn’t make you happy, consider time’, in which they discuss how happiness is indeed a consequence of the choices people make. So what can people do to increase their happiness? Their answer is surprisingly simple: invest your time wisely. Although wellbeing is clearly relevant for individuals, businesses should also pay attention. Building a workforce of highly qualified, hard-working, and loyal employees is an essential aspect of staying competitive in today’s global markets. Therefore, being concerned about employee wellbeing is not just a moral thing to do, but it makes smart business sense as well. They conclude that the activities that generate the greatest wellbeing are spending time with people you like, working on high impact projects that energize you (these usually allow you to use your strengths), enjoying experiences without actually doing them; focusing on the here and now (Aaker, Rudd & Mogilner 2011).

Does your team place priority on high impact work that energizes them?

Be the sheepdog, not the wolf.


Your organisation may be interested in experiencing the 7 Rituals of the Resilient Leader Workshop – Sign up for our free poster and course to learn how to create rituals that improve your resilience, mood, and performance.

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