Interestingly most of the Anbiya (Prophets) of Allah Y were shepherds of sheep. Esa (Jesus) u used the simile of the shepherd when he spoke of himself as the shepherd of men. There is much to be learnt in shepherding sheep. Here are some lessons in leadership that being a shepherd of sheep teaches us.
1. Responsibility & Accountability: (Hadith: Kullukum rayin wa kullukum mas-oolayn ar raayi-a – All of you are shepherds and all of you will have to answer for those in your care). The shepherd has to report to a higher authority. The shepherd is responsible and can’t blame the sheep for getting lost or hurt. He can’t say, ‘What can I do, my sheep are stupid.’ No matter if the sheep are stupid or clever, the shepherd is responsible.
2. Patience, Mercy, Compassion: Sheep have some qualities that other animals don’t have. Sheep take their time, they are slow, they run around, get easily distracted. They are weak and need more protection than other animals. They are more susceptible to threats than camels, horses or cattle. They have no concept of unity. They don’t come together to protect their young or the flock. They can’t be punished too harshly because they don’t have the strength to withstand severe punishment. So the shepherd has to be patient, merciful and compassionate with sheep otherwise they die. Camels are arrogant and so you have to meet the arrogance with strength and so the shepherds of camels tend to be tough and rude because that is how they keep camels in control. This is how the profession affects the individual. Doctors can’t write properly, they scribble. Teachers become very scholarly and pedantic. Mechanics have a personality different from farmers who deal with plants and the earth. Engineers, politicians, lawyers, policemen all have different personalities. So the profession is very important to consider so that you choose a profession that suits Islam and does not corrupt your Deen. Sahaba accepted all kinds of political/administrative positions but set the standard for those professions and did not succumb to the common illnesses of politics or administration. The shepherd has to be patient and bear with their people, no matter what they do. Musau was a shepherd for 10 years and so he had a lot of training to lead Bani Israel. So were many other prophets.
3. Courage: The shepherd protects the flock so he has to be courageous. There are many threats all of which the shepherd must be aware of and know what to do about them. A shepherd has to be prepared to put himself in danger to save his flock because sheep can’t defend themselves, let alone defending the shepherd. Since not all threats are the same, the shepherd has to anticipate threats and be prepared for them. He has to be creative to think of solutions for new emerging threats before they become sources of grief. A flock of sheep is notoriously difficult to keep in control as sheep have a tendency to stray. So the shepherd must be alert all the time and must know his sheep intimately so that he will know when one is missing.
4. Concern & Compassion: Sheep have to be fed. They won’t go and look for food on their own. If food is not provided, they will simply sit and die. So no matter what the weather conditions may be, the shepherd has to ensure that he takes them to the right grazing ground or has an alternate source of food and water for his sheep. The shepherd has to think of his sheep’s nutrition before he thinks of his own. So concern and compassion for the flock has to be uppermost in his mind. When sheep get sick, it is the shepherd who has to sit up in the night and nurse them. Sheep are delicate and easily injured, so the shepherd has to be compassionate and help them over difficult ground, if necessary carrying them across. How many times have we seen a shepherd carrying a newborn kid on his shoulders, because it is still not strong enough to walk?
5. Vision: Sheep are close to the ground and so can’t see very far and are not aware of any hidden dangers. The shepherd has a vantage point and so he can see the danger long before the sheep become aware of it and warn the sheep against it. Anbiya foresee the results of deeds which the doers of the deeds don’t see. When a shepherd is herding his flock he is the only one who knows the direction to take and the destination that he wants them to reach. Sheep simply go in the direction he sets even if it is harmful. That is why it is essential for the shepherd to be clear about the direction in the first place and so vision is critical.
6. Simplicity: A shepherd’s life has to be simple by default. So the shepherd learns austerity and to live without the luxuries. The shepherd has to carry his own possessions as the sheep will not carry them for him so he has to be light and mobile. The shepherd has to be physically tough and must take hardship in his stride. He sleeps early, wakes often in the night to check on his flock and then wakes early as the day breaks and his flock begins to stir. If he sleeps too long the sheep will leave him and go away in all directions.
7. Closeness to nature: Shepherds naturally live close to the creation of AllahY. In most places, shepherds camp out with their sheep moving from grazing to grazing and don’t return home for months. Often their only companions are their sheep. You have to love solitude and know how to keep yourself engaged to be a good shepherd. There is plenty of time to reflect, no urgency to go from place to place and the opportunity to get to know yourself very well. Among the joys of being close to nature is being able to see the stars, eat and drink natural things, sleep on the ground. To hear the silence. To become comfortable with darkness and not feel threatened. To see the sun rise and set, recognize the signs of AllahY in His creation and so build his own connection with the One to whom he will have to answer one day.
All these are the benefits of herding sheep. Even if we don’t do that literally today, it is important to ask how many of these qualities are within us and what we are doing to develop those that are not.