Written by Dr. John B. MacDonald 

Servant-Leadership is an appealing concept. Put forward by Robert K. Greenleaf, it is an important way to consider how to be an effective and caring leader.  

Yet, I propose that we can improve upon this framework with what I call “Shepherd-Leadership”.

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

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

What can we learn from a shepherd about becoming better leaders?  

Here are at least eight qualities of true leaders we can learn from the good shepherd in John 10. Take a moment to become familiar with John 10:1-18. 

  1. Boundaries: 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 and moral boundaries that leaders need to identify and maintain for the benefit of those they lead. 

  1. 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.” The leader must prove themselves to be worthy models to follow.  

  1. 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 shepherd toward the sheep. 

A leader needs to cultivate a deep sense of trust from those he or she leads. This is a quality where one’s voice speaks volumes about the character and care of the leader.  

  1. Provision: A shepherd provides good pasture (10:9). A sheep says of the shepherd (Psalm 23):

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 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 dismiss them without caring about what happens to them. When it comes to a leader’s choice, 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).  

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

So it is with true leaders: they willingly sacrifice themselves for the benefit of those they lead. It is not about the leader, it is 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. However, 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.  

  1. 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.”  

  1. Visionary. Jesus moved toward increasing the size of his flock—those who would become his genuine followers (10:16).

Like Jesus, true leaders have a God-honouring vision for the future and takes steps to press toward it. 

These are a few qualities we can learn from the Good Shepherd to become better leaders. 

So, with respect to Robert Greenleaf, I propose we move beyond being Servant-Leaders to becoming Shepherd-Leaders.