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8 qualities of shepherd-leaders

Dec. 10, 2016 | by John B. MacDonald

Robert Greenleaf’s concept of servant-leadership has wide acceptance. Yet, in a recent conversation, the discussion turned to its limitations.

Can we improve on servant-leadership?

I propose we can by becoming shepherd-leaders. 

David Bennett in Metaphors of Ministrypoints out that, in the Bible, “the shepherd image is one of the few that is applied exclusively to leaders.” 

No fewer than eight times in the Old Testament, God is portrayed as the shepherd of his people. In the Gospels, Jesus Christ is described as the good shepherd. There are no better teachers or models of leadership. 

There are at least eight qualities of a shepherd-leader we can learn from the good shepherd in John 10:1-18.

1. Boundaries. As I’ve written elsewhere, every relationship is defined and preserved by boundaries. Stepping over those boundaries damages or destroys the relationship.

A true leader will establish and maintain boundaries. For the shepherd, there is a sheep pen within which only his sheep may gather (10:1-2).

For leaders in every area of life, there are appropriate ethical, moral, and other boundaries that leaders need to establish and maintain for the benefit of those they lead.

2. Example. The shepherd “goes on ahead of [the sheep], and his sheep follow him” (10:3-4). 

Any true leader will lead by example. It is not a case of “do as I say, not as I do.” True leaders must be worthy models to follow. 

3. Trustworthy. Sheep follow the good shepherd “because they know his voice” (10:4). This is learned over time from the consistent and caring treatment of the sheep by the shepherd.

A leader needs to cultivate a deep sense of trust within those he or she leads. This is a quality in which one’s voice evokes the character and care of a shepherd-leader. 

4. Provision. A shepherd provides good pasture (10:9). In Psalm 23, a 'sheep' says of the Shepherd: 

  • I shall not be in want.
  • He makes me lie down in green pastures.
  • He leads me beside quiet waters.
  • He restores my soul.

True leaders provide for the real needs of those they lead.

For instance, they do not grind down their employees in unhealthy environments at less than livable wages. They do not fire them without caring about what happens to them. When it comes to a leader's choices, a person is more important than a profit. 

A leader acts in a way that gives “life” to those he or she leads (10:10). 

5. Sacrificial. Five times Jesus speaks about laying down his life for the sheep (10:11, 15, 17-18). The good shepherd chooses personal sacrifice for the welfare of his sheep. 

The same is true of shepherd-leaders. They willingly experience personal sacrifice for the benefit of those they lead. It’s not about the leader; it’s about those being led. 

6. Invested. The shepherd has a personal stake in the well-being of the sheep. A hired hand will abandon them when the going gets tough or dangerous—for him, it’s only a job. The shepherd is invested in the sheep and sticks with them through thick and thin (10:12). 

So it is with true leaders. They are personally invested in those they lead. 

7. Relational. “I know my sheep and my sheep know me” (10:14). 

The true leader takes the time and energy to build solid and genuine relationships with those he or she leads. Those led are not viewed as mere employees, servants, or objects; each is known and treated as an “image of God.” 

8. Visionary. Jesus had a vision of the future and lived for the fulfillment of that vision. In this case, it was increasing the size of his flock – those who would become his genuine followers (10:16). 

True leaders have a clear vision for the future and live toward it.

These are a few qualities we can learn from the good shepherd to become better leaders.

So, with due respect to Greenleaf, I propose we press beyond being servant-leaders to becoming shepherd-leaders.


John B. MacDonald

Dr. John B. MacDonald has served for decades as a lawyer and pastor-teacher. He is an associate with Outreach Canada and focuses on equipping and encouraging others to become more like Jesus Christ and to live all of life with God-honoring competence and joy.



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