Thursday, February 9, 2017

What Business can Learn from Sheep Herding

What Business can Learn from Sheep Herding
by Bryan J. Neva, Sr.

Business can learn a lot from the business of sheep herding. Sheep herding is a type of farming or animal husbandry where the revenues come primarily from wool but also from meat and hides. In the U.S. sheep herding is small compared to cattle herding or pig or poultry farming. But in other countries it's still quite large. 

Sheep Herding
Sheep herding is one of the oldest businesses in history dating back 10,000 years to the domestication of animals. Sheep were kept for their milk, meat, hides, but most especially for their wool. Since sheep are grazing herbivores and crop plants very close to the root, shepherds must constantly find new pastures for them to graze upon. Shepherding also includes keeping the sheep herd, or flock, together, protecting the flock (with the help of hired-hands and sheepdogs) from predators (like wolves), and bringing them to market.

Sheep are not easy animals to raise or manage. They're stupid and foolish and slow to learn even from very painful lessons. They're awkward, stubborn, and demanding (especially for more grass to eat). Sheep also have a tendency to go astray, be unpredictable, and blindly follow whatever the rest of the herd is doing (if one sheep starts running, they all start to run); this is called the herd mentality.

They're restless animals and tend not to sleep much as they live in constant fear of friction with other sheep, fear of hunger, and fear of predators and death. Sheep don't really have any natural defenses, so they tend to be quite dependent on their shepherd to protect them.

Lessons from the Bible
Sheep are the most mentioned type of animal throughout the bible. For example, in Exodus chapter 12 the first Jewish Passover was instituted: it involved slaughtering a year-old, unblemished male lamb, sprinkling the blood of the lamb on the doorposts, then eating a meal of roasted, bitter herb spiced lamb in the evening. When the Angel-of-Death came to the house and seen the blood of the lamb sprinkled on the doorposts, he would passover the house and the firstborn would not die. Every year since then, the Jewish people have celebrated the Passover which falls around the same time as Easter in the Spring.

It's no coincidence when the great prophet John the Baptist first seen Jesus he said to everyone, "Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!" (John 1:29).

David was a shepherd by trade before being made King of Israel by the Prophet Samuel. He was from a small town called Bethlehem, was handsome, the youngest in his family, and he shepherded his father's sheep (1 Samuel 16:1-13). David was a brave young man and once killed a lion and a bear using only his slingshot in defense of his flock (1 Samuel 17:36). David wrote this beautiful song (Psalm 23) that many of us know and love:
The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. 
He makes me lie down in green pastures; He leads me beside still waters; He restores my soul. 
He leads me in right paths for His name sake.
Even though I walk through the valley of of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for thou are with me; Your rod and your staff comfort me. 
You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever. 
This famous psalm has a much deeper meaning than one might think; many religious people have spoken and written on the psalm in detail, but you can readily get the main message David is trying to convey that the Lord, like a good shepherd, will take care of us throughout our lives. (A good book to read on this is A Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23 by W. Phillip Kellor.)

When Jesus was born in Bethlehem, it was to poor shepherds that an Angel (tradition says it was St. Gabriel) who first announced the birth of Jesus to them (Luke 2:8-20): 
In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then the angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified! But the angel said to them, "Do not be afraid; for see I'm bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger." And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of heavenly host, praising God and singing, "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to people of goodwill!"
And, of course, we all know the rest of the story. But this event is quite ironic because Jesus was a direct descendant of King David who probably pastured his sheep in the same fields as these shepherds did.

During Jesus' ministry, he compared himself to a good shepherd tending his flock of sheep:
I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The hired-hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away—and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. The hired-hand runs away because a hired-hand does not care for the sheep. I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me ... I lay down my life for the sheep. (John 10:11-14).
Jesus also told the famous parable of the "Lost Sheep" (Luke 15:4-7): 
Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it? When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, "Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost." Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.
Given that sheep are stupid, foolish animals and tend to wander away from the flock, I suspect that most who heard this parable would have thought Jesus' parable was ludicrous. A smart shepherd would never leave his ninety-nine sheep to search for just one of his lost sheep! But Jesus' point in this parable is that God doesn't think like we do: he'll never leave anyone behind or abandon them if they lose their way. The Prophet Isaiah (53:6) famously compared all of us to sheep when he wrote, "All we like sheep have gone astray..." 

Analogies to Business
So what analogies can business draw from all this?
  • The good shepherd would be analogous to a good owner of a business; whereas a bad shepherd would be analogous to a bad owner
  • good sheep would be analogous to the good employees of a business; whereas bad sheep (aka black sheep) would be analogous to the bad employees;
  • hired-hands would be analogous to bad managers of a business, and bad managers are like wolves in sheep's clothing
  • sheepdogs would be analogous to the good and loyal employees and managers who try to protect the business from harm;
  • and the wolves would be analogous to the enemies of a business. 
A good owner will be a good shepherd who puts the needs of his employees ahead of his own. He'll serve them. He knows that by treating his employees well it will build trust and loyalty with them, and they'll produce even more for his business. A bad owner would do just the opposite. Money and power would come before what is right and just for their employees. Wall Street investors with their profit-at-any-price attitude would be an example of bad owners.

The owner of a business is responsible for his employees; they are a big part of his business and without them he simply cannot have a business since they perform the needed tasks. Every business has at least one employee, that is, the owner himself. The overused cliche, "our employees are our greatest assets" actually is quite's just too bad that most businesses don't follow their own advice. 

The employees are like sheep in that they too get restless and afraid; they lose sleep over the conflicts they have with other employees or managers in the workplace, and they live in constant fear of losing their jobs and livelihoods. They worry about enemies who may try to harm them or the business in any way.

But employees are not stupid and foolish like sheep are; human beings are at the top of the food chain for a reason: we're the most intelligent of all the animals. But like sheep, we sometimes make stupid and foolish mistakes and don't learn from them either; it's just part of being human.

Like sheep, we too can be pretty stubborn and unwilling to change our ways even when presented with evidence and convincing arguments. Like sheep, we too can be pretty demanding of others and behave wrongly when we don't get our way. Like sheep, we too can physically, emotionally, and spiritually go astray and get lost; and it usually takes someone who cares about us to help us find our way back home. Like sheep, we too can suffer from the herd mentality when we blindly follow what everyone else is doing rather than questioning the ethics and morality of it. Finally, like sheep, we can be defenseless against our enemies; but unlike sheep, our defense is our intelligence.

Unlike the good owner who cares about his employees, bad managers are just looking out for themselves and don't really care about the welfare of the employees; after all, it's not their business. When danger or trouble arises, they'll save themselves before trying to save the employees or the business. 

The good and loyal employees and managers who try to protect the business from harm persevere in fighting the enemies of the business. They're often opposed by bad owners, bad managers, and bad employees who are just looking out for themselves. Unfortunately, these good and loyal employees and managers are often the unsung, unrecognized, and unpromoted heros within a business. They're the embodiment of the cliche, "no good deed goes unpunished!" 

These sheepdogs of a business will often stick their necks out to fight for what they believe is right. This behavior does not endear them to the bad owners and bad managers, which is why they usually never get promoted. Although hurt by this, they're guided by their own moral compass, and getting ahead at the expense of compromising their values is something they're simply unwilling to do. Unfortunately, these good and loyal employees and managers only make up a small percentage of a business organization.

Finally, the enemies of a business can come from inside or outside an organization. Enemies from within an organization can include bad owners, bad managers, or bad employees. Enemies from without an organization can include competitors or other stakeholders who don't have the best interests of the business in mind.

Lessons for Business
Admittedly, sheep herding lends itself to small business owners and not major corporations owned by shareholders. But that's the point! Small businesses tend to do all the right things that a good shepherd would do. It seems as though the bigger the business or organization the worse it treats its employees and other stakeholders. A small business would never survive for long if it behaved like many major corporations do. Smaller really is better than bigger. The only exception would be a business, like automobile manufacturing, where an economy of scale is a necessity to sell at an affordable price. But not all big businesses behave badly. It seems as though privately held corporations tend to behave better than publicly held corporations. So it is possible for big corporations to behave like a good shepherd would.

If businesses would keep their priorities straight, they'd behave more like a good shepherd would. If they'd start by putting people ahead of profit they'd probably find that they'd become even more profitable. It's counterintuitive. Numerous management studies confirm that if you treat your employees right they'll produce more for you, but if don't then they won't. It's really that simple.

If businesses would strive to always do the right thing regardless of the implications for their business they'd probably find that they'd save money in the long term and the business would survive even longer. And if they'd reward the good, loyal, and courageous employees and managers (sheepdogs) for standing up for what is right and just, then everyone would get the message that honesty and integrity are truly valued in the business. Punishing the messenger just sends the opposite message.

If they'd hold all their bad managers and bad employees accountable for their bad behavior it would instill a sense of justice in all the employees and they'd discover turnover would dramatically decrease and productivity would dramatically increase. Once again, it's counterintuitive.

The enemies of a business will never go away. The wolves of Wall Street with their profit-at-any-price beliefs will always be demanding more. But a good manager (good shepherd) would never allow Wall Street investors to dictate to him how to run their business; he'd courageously stand up to them just like a good sheepdog would. Unfortunately in this era we live in, Wall Street investors have gotten just too brazen just like brazen wolves which incessantly prey on the sheep herd. It would be like telling a shepherd to bring ALL of his sheep to market, scheer their wool, then slaughter them ALL for their meat and hides. The shepherd would no longer be in business. And that essentially is what investors are demanding of publicly traded companies.

Bad managers (hired hands) are like wolves in sheep's clothing and they'll always infiltrate an organization. The important thing here is for a good owner to not look the other way when he sees a pattern of bad behavior, but to hold their bad managers accountable for their bad behavior. And bad employees only lower the moral of the good employees when they too are not held accountable for their bad behavior.

Any business will always have unethical competitors. The important thing is to not sink to their level. Let the customers who are too price driven do business with your unethical competitors and they'll have to learn the hard way that, "nothing in life is free!" In the long run, it'll end up costing them more. Once again, it's counterintuitive. Ultimately people do business with people, and more often than not people will pay more to do business with an honest and ethical business. Unethical businesses rarely survive for long anyway.

In short, business can learn a lot from the simple business of sheep herding which has survived and thrived in one form or another for over 10,000 years!  

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