An Unexpected Leadership Lesson

Last week I had the opportunity to hear one of my favorite authors, Geraldine Brooks, and left with an unexpected lesson in leadership.

A former journalist and non-fiction writer, Brooks now writes historical fiction, including Year of Wonders, about a town that quarantined itself during the bubonic plague, March, about the absent father in Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, Caleb’s Crossing, about a Wampanoag Indian who graduated from Harvard in 1665, and, most recently, The Secret Chord, about King David.

When asked about her research methods, Brooks indicated that there are journals, diaries, newspaper articles and other items from most of the eras she has explored. Even if they are not directly about her protagonists, they provide the historical context for the people and events she features. The same is not true of King David. There is no evidence other than the Bible to indicate his existence and few relevant artifacts from that era.

To prepare for The Secret Chord without historical materials to rely on, she went to Israel to experience some of what might have existed in his time. She and her son slept in a goatherd’s tent in the desert and they learned to herd sheep, which, she said, provided a lesson in leadership. In fact, she stressed, it is worth noting how many kings were shepherds.

Shepherding wasn’t easy, she said, especially when they were charged with separating the sheep from the goats. But then her son figured out that sheep and goats react differently to external threats. Sheep gather in a close circle. Goats, who are swifter, flee. Once they understood that behavior it was easy to separate them. The lesson, she said, was that you can’t lead without understanding those you lead.

When we lead, we must understand the people and culture in which we find ourselves. What worked in one environment may fail in another. We need to truly listen before we act.

Barbara ViniarComment