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It had to be shepherds, with Blaine McCormick (San Francisco Chronicle) December 24, 2003

Posted by daviddavenport in Newspaper Columns/Essays, Op/Eds.
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Nativity scenes are front and center this month (except where void or prohibited by law). Of course most of the attention goes to the newborn baby center stage, with some eyes taking in mom or dad. Even the so-called wise men get a little play, with their after-market bumper sticker, “Wise men still seek him.”

But we are interested in those farm workers, the ones with stage right wearing hoodies and carrying staffs. When the angel came in the middle of the night 2000 years ago with a dramatic holiday announcement, who was awake to receive the news? The city officials or Roman soldiers? No, it had to be shepherds, who were watching over their flocks by night.

Examples of great leadership pop up in the most surprising places. An American soldier spots a tuft of fiber in a farm compound and leads to the capture of the world’s most notorious and elusive dictator. A little-known former governor of one of our smallest states emerges to lead the Democratic presidential field. And the first to hear about the newborn baby in Bethlehem were common shepherds.

Experts today propose all kinds of metaphors for leadership: from orchestra conductor to cowboy to coach. We suggest, however, that these mindful shepherds of ancient Israel, in fact, provide a wonderful model of modern leadership.

First, shepherds like good leaders are watchful when others are not. In fact, shepherding was exactly the demanding 24/7 job that modern leadership has become. Like parents of teenagers, shepherds slept with one eye open and one ear listening, lest predators have a feast from the flock. As we have seen this year, corporate boards that are not mindful of executive fraud or mismanagement need to be replaced with watchful shepherds. Coaches who claim they did not know when their assistant coaches or booster clubs were cheating are properly replaced with shepherds who will mind the flock.

Second, shepherds like good leaders are out in the field with their flocks, not in spas or palaces. They have learned, as the London subway announces when trains arrive at the station, to “mind the gap.” While it is true that some gap between leaders and followers is inevitable — leaders usually know more and make more than others — shepherd leaders actively mind or manage that gap.

One reasons for President Bush’s personal popularity, even among those who do not agree with his policies, is that he is regularly out among the people he leads. While the rest of us were enjoying Thanksgiving dinner with our families, he was in Iraq with the troops, minding the gap. Emergency workers in New York remember him mounting the back of a pickup with a bullhorn to encourage them in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Leaders who up where the action is, whether in Bethlehem or Iraq or New York, rolling up their sleeves to encourage and help.

Poor leaders widen the gap with huge salaries and excessive perks. Just ask the jurors in the recent corruption case against ex-Tyco CEO Dennis Kozlowski what they felt as they watched a video of the $2 million birthday party he threw for his wife in Italy.

A final reason these ancient shepherds are great models of leadership was their willingness to follow some moral authority. When the angels delivered their message, the shepherds hurried to Bethlehem and began spreading the news. Great leaders are open to moral influence from followers, peers, sacred writings and higher authorities. Leaders who answer to no one leave trails of death and destruction, such as Saddam Hussein has done in Iraq.

So if you think only of Little Bo Peep when you hear about shepherds, maybe you ought to reconsider your thinking this holiday season. Shepherds are vigilant, compassionate, out in front, and at the side — all at the same time. They have a lot to teach us, even if they never get the spotlight in the nativity scene.

This op/ed appeared on Page A-19.

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