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A Goat Taught Me A Lesson in Leadership

This wasn’t the goat in question.  This guy looks much friendlier!

I learnt a few things about leadership in the highly competitive and corporate environment of the law firms, corporations and government departments of my 20’s and early 30’s. These lessons came from the experience of supervising junior employees and from being led by various levels of middle and upper management.

But, surprisingly, one of the most important lessons in leadership came from a hairy guy with no manners and bad teeth… not my boss, but a goat.  Yes, I learned this lesson when I was working as a goat herder in Portugal.  And here I share it with you.

The Lesson: There is no doubt that goats can teach all manner of useful lessons on the art of living and of best practice to reach our goals.  For example, “remain surefooted” or “aim for the mountain peak” or “climb a tree to eat the yummy berries even though it defies the laws of gravity and nature for you to climb a tree with your big goaty body”… but here is one simple lesson from one special goat who kept the lesson short and focused.

And this is what he taught me:

A leader provides a distinct path

Leadership Lessons from Goats

In other words, figure out what you want before delivering orders; don’t skip about the place changing your mind, demanding that your people follow your haphazard dance all over the place.

That’s not leading; that is stumbling around like a panicking albatross which flaps every which way as it enters its death throes. To be led by such a person is akin to being tethered to this panicking albatross – not a nice sensation at all.

I’ve encountered enough “leaders” like this to say it is not a satisfying situation to work with.  Your team will feel degraded, unvalued, demotivated and, at worst, humiliated.  To top it off, they will stop respecting you – and a leader without the respect of his or her team is not really a leader of anything.

To effectively lead you need to know where you are going and you need to give your people direction by mapping an intelligent strategy, exercising discipline, and encouraging your team to soar along with you – to keep the avian analogy going, think more bird-of-prey-gliding-high-and-mighty-in-the-crisp-mountain-air; less chicken-trapped-in-a-maze.

How did a goat teach me this lesson?  Well let me tell you:

The Goat in question:

The devil wears a white coat... meet Lucifer

The devil wears a white coat… meet Lucifer

My teacher’s name was Lucifer.  That’s the name I gave him anyway.  He was the Alpha male goat of the herd and he was one scary horned beast.  Despite the shadows in this picture, you can still just make out those MASSIVE spiralled horns scratching a flank of ridiculous goat-muscle.  Yikes.

The setting: It was my responsibility to keep 32 lovely goats together on several hectares of isolated Portuguese countryside.  Big blue skies, a trusty dog by my side, clean country air all around me and a tuft of hay perched on my lip.  I welcomed the glaring contrast from the heavy legal conferences in London I’d just left.

My herd somewhere in a valley in Portugal: with Lucifer out front.

My herd somewhere in a valley in Portugal: with Lucifer out front.

Day 1.  My first day as a goat herder was cool.  My goats were obedient and sweet-natured and generally did whatever I asked, simply because I was the one holding the staff (which was not used to hit them – just to smack on the ground periodically while overzealously shouting “yallah yallah”).  

Day 2.  On the second day, I lost the respect of my herd and this is how it happened: the dog’s ears pricked up as he sensed a car in the distance approaching us on the dirt track through the otherwise deserted valley. “Better get all the goats together and away from the road” I thought.  So I used the staff, I yelled and trilled and whistled.  Most of the goats obliged but goats are stubborn by nature so a couple stayed on their own munching grass on the other side of the road from the rest of us. I was worried they’d get hit by the car that was zooming towards us and I chopped and changed my mind 3 times as to which side of the road would be easier to get them all to. Most of the goats willingly went back and forth BUT, on the third ill-thought out change of plan, I noticed something switch in the expression of the Alpha goat. To begin with he looked at me quizzically but, as my indecisiveness became clear, I saw the unmistakable spark of challenge in his eye.  Hard to believe but he smirked at me!  This was the point at which I lost the trust, and in turn, the respect of the Alpha of my herd.

A Goaty Kind of Nightmare

Day 3.  On the third day, my blissful existence as a goatherder turned into a goaty kind of nightmare. From first thing in the morning, Lucifer charged me, challenged me, eyeballed me, bared his teeth and made it very clear he was planning to gore me to death at the first opportunity.  It sounds pathetic to be afraid of a goat.  But remember, this was the goat and his tiny size in this picture is a trick of perspective.  He was as big as a tiger:

Lucifer the goat and Messiah the dog

Lucifer the goat and Messiah the dog

Lucifer had huge curly horns growing out of his head.  When he reared up on his hind legs he was freakin enormous.  And he had a gripe with me.  In a valley, where noone can hear you scream. And it just got worse.  To the point that I was unable to lead my own herd.

I was always conscious of Lucifer watching me and waiting for his chance to attack.  As the Alpha, he influenced the rest of the herd to ignore my orders.  Even the previously placid pregnant goats now looked at me with indifference and scorn when I asked them to move on.

The dog was taunting the female goats.  I had been made aware that this dog (aptly enough named “Messiah”) had killed several goats in the past so the goats understandably held a lot of resentment towards him.  Sadly, not much I could do about his past behaviour so I just tried to keep peace between the animal species.

But Lucifer was looking for any opportunity to start it up and challenge me and after a week he’d just grown impatient.  So this goat attacked the dog.  As someone who only ever owned a chuiwawa-shitzu piglet-sized pup as a child, I was not accustomed to breaking up fights between Irish Wolfhounds and gigantic, horned alpha goats.

But instinct kicked in. What I did next surprised even me!

Within seconds I picked up the biggest rock I could and charged Lucifer whilst simultaneously emitting something that sounded like a war-cry.  I went head-to-head with a crazed Alpha goat in a valley in the middle of nowhere and I survived to write this blog post.

Admittedly, like a nerdy-warrior, I had wrapped my scarf high around my head to make me appear taller and scarier, borrowing an idea from a nature documentary I’d seen about how tribespeople in Bengal would wear high masks to appear larger and more intimidating to the tigers.  And, I would never have actually done anything with the rock apart from hold it above my head to scare the wee out of this hairy Prince of Darkness.

But the point is, I established boundaries that day.  The slate was wiped clean: respect was mine again. But I had learned my lesson.

Never again would I ask my herd to go to the effort of crossing the road until I was sure it was the right request.   No, I had learned the valuable lesson that a leader must provide a clear path.

And when this simple adage is applied to the corporate setting, we can see that employees, staff, colleagues do not appreciate putting their time, effort and hard work into anything that will be scrapped or changed for no reason other than the initial carelessness of the instruction.

You need to give your people the confidence that there is a clear rhyme and reason behind the direction in which they are being led.  It is one thing to require some degree of flexibility in those on your team for those times when a revised approach is truly unforeseeable and unavoidable, but it is quite another to get people to do their job over and over again because you failed to set out a clear path from the outset.

And that is the end of this lesson in leadership from Lucifer the Portuguese goat.  Thank you for paying attention.  Meeaahhh.

And to reward you for being so attentive that you read this far, here’s the Game of Thrones theme tune as sung by goats (and one sheep):

Featured pic: danw7504

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