By Grant Campbell
The title is adapted from Ian Durston’s book Everything I Need to Know about Being a Manager, I Learned from my Kids, as the pun is too irresistible. It refers, however, to a goat that was on the property next to ours during my childhood.
I grew up in the countryside on the outskirts of Auckland, New Zealand, in a small township called Huia on the southern edge of the Waitakere Ranges. We lived in a distinctive three-storey inverted U-shaped house, designed and built by my father to be tall enough to capture the views over the Manukau Harbour.
Next door to our place was an empty section that belonged to friends who had put a goat on the property to keep the grass down. The white goat, called Claude, had a collar and 12-foot chain that looped over metal stakes dotted around the field. My father would move Claude from time to time to eat the grass in a different part of the field. He would unloop the chain, grasp Claude firmly by the collar, and wrestle him up the hill – Claude was quite a large and strong goat! – manhandling him to within reach of the next metal stake, where Claude would shake himself off and start on a fresh circle of grass.
Sometimes it fell to me to move the goat and, being slighter than my father, such a muscular approach was not an option for me. So I would unloop the chain and, staying on the other end of the chain from the goat, wander slowly up the hill, and Claude would wander slowly in the vague general direction, gently pulled by the chain, but distracted by the fresh grass that he would pause to munch. And eventually we’d arrive close enough to the target stake for me to loop the chain, and the goat would be moved, and we’d both had a pleasant walk in the sunshine.
And it has often struck me in the decades since that there is something about management and leadership in this story of the goat. There are times when management/leadership needs to be robustly prescriptive and forceful; when a crisis needs to be dealt with, or difficult decisions grasped, and people may need to be wrestled into line. There are times when it is necessary to grasp the goat by the collar and move it. And of course, it is seductively satisfying to triumph heroically over the beast!
But more often, it seems to me, a style of gentle leading is more appropriate. You see, the goat barely realised he had been moved. The change was achieved without fuss or resistance or sweat, by in effect moving my own location, which caused the goat also to move, such that he was now orbiting a new centre.
It is a philosophy not a million miles away from Gandhi’s “Be the change you wish to see in the world.” Or Paul’s “making ourselves a model for you to follow” (2 Thess 3:9) or Peter’s “being examples to the flock” (1 Peter 5:3).
Our circle of influence is larger than our circle of direct control. Much management and leadership literature focusses on expanding one’s circle of influence, with perhaps less attention on the no less worthy option of altering its centre. The leader is more concerned, I would suggest, about where their circle is and where it is going, less than about how large it is growing around an established and unyielding core. A leader who wishes to take others on a journey is presumably on a journey themselves; their appeal is in their commitment to the journey itself, perhaps, rather than the destination already attained. The focus on where the circle of influence is centred and where it is going is no less important, I would suggest, than its size.
Even subtler and deeper, however, is the barely noticed leader. The goat did not notice it was being moved. Lao Tzu observes “A leader is best when people barely know he exists; when his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say ‘We did it ourselves’.” Benjamin Thomas says of Abraham Lincoln, “So deft was Lincoln’s leadership that people often failed to recognise it. Few persons thought him great.”
Similarly, it is more efficient to avert problems than to deal with them. However, David Heath observes of Upstream thinking that there are no heroics in a type of leadership that quietly averts problems before they happen. If the adrenalin and glory of heroics are the driving ambition, then quietly persistent, barely perceptible goat-nudging leadership will not deliver the accolades and awards. This type of leadership draws from more selfless wells of ambition and motivation that find their reward in a genuine humility that rightly sees oneself not as the centre of a small universe, but against a much grander cosmic purpose.
You can move yourself – your knowledge, your character, your values, beliefs and actions – to take up with integrity a position of importance to you. The world may not follow with the recognition and enthusiasm you wish. The frustrations of not being noticed and followed may develop virtues of patience and diligence that serve you and others better in the long run, and you are more likely to retain the humble integrity with which your desirable position must be sought, held and matured.
Such are the thoughts that quiet childhood goat-moving has prompted. The goat lived its circular life around a centre that moved from time to time – the centre and direction of the leader’s position are more important than the length or strength of the chain, compelled by the pure merits of the journey, not the applause or objections of the crowd. The goat was moved with the mover barely noticed – the subtlest, most nuanced and most demanding form of leadership, for which the leader may never know the full circle of their influence and blessing.
Grant Campbell is a Professor of Chemical Engineering at the University of Huddersfield in the U.K. This post is adapted from a recent talk he gave after winning a prestigious award in his field of expertise.