Leadership Through Goat Herding

Leadership Through Goat Herding

My family has three dairy goats we purchased in concert with our cousins in the interests of starting a subsistence farm between their homestead and ours. While I am disabled enough that most farming is forever a closed door to me, I’ve discovered I enjoy sitting with the goats. Our three girls are Nigerian goats. One is black, one is white, and one is a marbled mix of the two, and their names (respectively) are Nova, Clover, and Fern. I adore our goats. Our group bottle-raised them, so they are extremely tame and affectionate.

Now, I can’t do a lot of walking with them—my idea of “herding” is sitting on a rock, absorbing some vitamin D for sort periods while they browse on whatever they can reach. This, unfortunately, oftentimes means my irises or other flowers and plants that are not theirs to nibble. While I’ve been in leadership positions for years in various capacities, it’s not a new hat to me, spending time with my goats has given me a context in which to talk about leadership. It’s one of those perspectives you develop when spending time as part of a herd.

In my Wednesday post, I talked about “the difference between being a boss and being a leader”, and that spills over to my goats. There are two schools of thought when it comes to handling them and pulling them away from something you don’t want them eating or turning them away from a place you don’t want to go. I won’t profess to be an expert at this, but I have noticed certain trends in their behavior.

If Nova wanders into my irises (again) and starts trying to pluck the tops off the flowers (again), I can react a few ways. I could yell at her which may or may not work because not only does she not understand English, she’s belly-deep in tasty flowers. I could throw a rock at her to spook her out of the patch (which is an effective technique, or so I’m told). I could tap her with my stick hard enough to make her think twice about eating my flowers, or I can grab her collar and tug her out of the flowers and bring her over to something equally tasty but preferable for her to enjoy.

I prefer to do the last option. I don’t like frightening my goats or making them think of me as some kind of spectre to be watchful of. Instead, I’d rather they view me as they do: someone trustworthy that they can rely on to know more than they do and guide them. At this point, if I see Nova sniffing toward my iris patch, I only have to rebuke her verbally (not yell), and she heads right back with the others with a wiggle of her ears and expression that suggests she knows exactly what she was doing.

This development of authority is based on a system of rewards and appropriate scolding. It’s not angry yelling or fear, but instead they develop trust. They know I will lead them to something good and pleasant, and while I might not let them have everything they want, they still get good things.

Clover, on the other hand, is a bit of a dunce sometimes. Unlike the willful Nova, she loses track of the world the minute she finds a particularly interesting patch of anything. If goats could have ADD, she probably would qualify. While Fern and Nova keep an eye on me and, if I walk away, follow me, I have to fetch Clover. Which means Nova and Fern will follow me, and then I’m fighting all three of them trying to get any of them to do what I want. Gosh, they’re lucky they’re cute. Let me tell you.

Instead of scolding Clover or finding her annoying, I instead dutifully tug her out of the tree/bush/brush pile and gather her with the others. We then make our way to wherever it was I’d intended on going. Clover doesn’t know any better and needs a little more attention than the others because she’s just that way. She’s also the sweetest of the three goats, and the most cuddly.

The key here is to develop dynamic techniques that benefit everyone in your team. You might have to backtrack a little to tug a dreamer into the group again, but it’s often worth it. And, like the situation with Nova, making her afraid of me won’t help anything. Instead, I just remind her to come along, and she falls in line with the others.

The effects of good leadership have not been more obvious to me than today when we had some friends over to do some firearms work on the property. We have significant parcel of land, and our firearms range is legal and safe. The goats had never been around firearms fire before, and I was out with them not too far from the shooters. When the first few shots rang out, all three goats charged over to me and leaned on me. They were afraid, but rather than running and scattering, they clustered around their leader. Once they realized I wasn’t afraid of the shots, and the sound wasn’t going to hurt them, they continued grazing. The girls stuck close to me, but they didn’t run away or do more than twitch an ear as my friends unloaded magazines downrange.

I think the reactions of my goats demonstrates, in no uncertain terms, the importance of leadership. When facing conflict, fear, strife, or other problems a team could—and might—run in different directions, seeking cover. If you have a strong leader, however, the team will converge on that leader for guidance. Once they have the “okay” from their leader, even if there is continued stress, they find confidence enough to continue on business as usual. For the most part.

I guess the heart of what I’m getting at here is leadership is more defined by creating an atmosphere of trust and respect rather than fear and abject obedience. While I understand the importance of complete and total obedience in certain circumstances (military, police, etc.), that’s a completely different arena. In my case, my goats are not going into life-or-death situations, nor will my decisions bring about catastrophe. Mostly. I view them eating all my irises a catastrophe, but that’s not quite on the same scale.

If you want people to follow you, give them a reason to trust you. Inspire them. Show them kindness and compassion. Patience. Loyalty. Show them that you really are looking out for them, and then can turn to you when they’re afraid. Let them be themselves, too, even if it’s a little inconvenient at times. If you do those things, when it really matters, they’ll be right there with you. That also means you can rely on them in turn. You can trust them to do what you want them to do. Even if they occasionally push boundaries and get into your flower beds.


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