Today is Good Shepherd Sunday. All of us are called to be shepherds after the heart of Christ. We exercise the office of shepherd as civil leaders, corporate leaders, teachers, priests, church leaders or even as parents. Regardless how old or young we are, we will always be exercising some form of leadership. We are not just being led but we also lead according to our capacity.
We all know how it is to be in leadership. We can never please everyone. It is extremely challenging to unite people with different personalities, interests, views and perspectives to work together. No matter what we do, there will be people who oppose us, slander us and resist whatever we try to do for the greater good of the community. But this is the trial and test of leadership as well. Jesus as our cornerstone has been rejected by His own people as well. Both the Acts of the Apostles and the responsorial psalm reiterate the same thing about the stone rejected by the builders. So leaders should not be surprised when they are rejected as well. But it is also important to examine the reasons why there are people who oppose us in leadership.
We can of course blame the sheep. Most of us are into this blame game whenever things go wrong. Instead of looking at the issues objectively, we look for scapegoats to blame for our failures, unhappiness and frustrations. Instead of looking into ourselves, our tendency is to assign the fault to other people or the structures. This could be the case for us as leaders. We conclude that our failures and disappointments are all because they did not listen to our voice. Instead they chose their own way. They are self-willed and they chose to go astray. The problem is with them and not with us. We feel that they do not know us and cannot feel with us in our struggles. Most of all, they do not appreciate how much we have done for them.
But adopting the blame game will not solve the pain and frustrations we face as leaders! We will only become more bitter and resentful. So instead of picking at the faults of those sheep under our care, it would be more worthwhile that we look into ourselves and understand why our sheep are not hearing our voice and therefore not following us. At the end of the day, there is a communication breakdown. It might not just be at the information level, but at the level of the heart. Can we truly say with Jesus when He said, “I am the good shepherd; I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for my sheep”? I think it would be fair to say that we do not really know our sheep and they do not know us. This is the reason for the miscommunication and lack of communication between leaders and the led.
Why don’t our sheep have confidence in us? The reason is simply because they do not trust that we can lead them to greener pastures, or worse still, that we do not have their interests at heart. So trust and confidence is not just a matter of competency and ability in leadership, but more than that, whether we really care for them. In fact, our sheep can forgive us for the lack of leadership skills, but they cannot forgive us if we are self-serving, putting our interests and convenience before theirs.
What could cause the lack of trust and confidence? It could be due to the lack of transparency. They do not know what we are doing. We do not take time to explain to them our vision, mission, our plans and concerns. They are just receiving commands and orders from us. They feel that we are making use of them like pawns for our ambition. This is true even for parents. Our children do not do what we tell them because they do not understand our concerns, our struggles, and our constraints, especially when they ask for favors or money. They are afraid to tell us the truth or share their problems and struggles for fear of rejection or being marginalized and falling out of favour with us. They don’t see us as caring for them and that we are laying down our lives for them.
They do not know us perhaps because we do not let them know us. We do not spend time with the sheep, like the shepherd who lives with them. They feel that we regard them as a flock of sheep, as a mass rather than as individuals with different strengths and weaknesses, needs and difficulties. We do not really know our sheep because we live in our ivory tower. In a word, we are not in touch with their pains and dreams and aspirations. We do not know them by name, that is, personally, and therefore cannot share their sufferings, hopes and expectations.
Accordingly, for effectiveness in leadership, the leader must take pains to explain to their members and share with them his vision and challenges so that they can better appreciate the limitations and the anxieties of their leaders. Indeed, this was the case of Jesus the Good Shepherd. The bible tells us that the shepherd always lives among his sheep, day and night. He is often alone with his sheep. He will talk to them, play with them, always leading and protecting them. That is how the sheep come to recognize the voice of their shepherd. Jesus always takes pains to share with His apostles and disciples His vision of life, God and creation. He even prepared them for His eventual death and resurrection. If there is a lack of trust, it boils down to the lack of communication and sharing.
Secondly, the lack of trust in leaders has to do with the way we exercise leadership. Quite often, we exercise our leadership using an authoritarian style, where we rely heavily on the exercise of institutional authority, a style of command that is top down. As a consequence, those under our charge see us as dictatorial, uncompromising, ambitious, insensitive and arrogant. They feel we are judgmental and exacting, especially when they make mistakes. We lack compassion and understanding. Instead of being forgiving and encouraging, we put them down. Such an approach will only hurt our sheep. Instead of using the staff to guide them, to lead and correct them, we use the staff as a rod to beat them and punish them. Without gentleness and meekness in leadership, we will destroy and wound them further and deeper. Harshness and arrogance are not the ways Jesus dealt with His disciples. It is always one of humble servanthood. Compassionate leadership is the only way to gain trust and respect from our sheep.
Thirdly, they do not feel that we genuinely care for them as persons with feelings and needs. We care more for our projects and ambitions. Like the bad shepherds of Israel in Ezekiel 34, we only use them for our interests and to achieve our goals. We take their wool to receive honour, recognition and respect for what we do. We drink their milk, making use of them for our benefit. So they feel used by us. They do not see that we are more interested in their well-being and their happiness than the success of our projects. Some of them are lost, but we do not take the trouble to seek them out. Others are wounded but we do not have time to heal them. Some are sick but we do not take the trouble to nurse them. Some are hungry, overworked and tired but we do not feed them, give them formation and love.
Once we treat them like workers instead of brothers and sisters, we begin to regard them as our property to do as we like with them. But that is against the truth that we share the same Heavenly Father, as St John tells us in the second reading. We are all children of God. Indeed, although I have been using the term “our sheep” I must qualify this, for strictly speaking, those under our care, whether our children, employees or members, do not belong to us and they are not our sheep! But they are the sheep of God since Jesus is the only Good Shepherd. They are our sheep insofar as we are exercising shepherding on behalf of God. If they were our sheep in the narrow sense, then we can do with them as we will, since they are our property. But precisely as St John says, we are all children of God; we as leaders are accountable to God our Good Shepherd in the way we manage His sheep.
To gain confidence from those we lead, leaders are expected to walk the talk. We are called to lead. This means we must be ahead of our sheep. To walk ahead is to show the way and walk the way. We are called to be exemplars of the values that we hold. In the final analysis, it is the lack of of integrity and fidelity to our calling that cause leaders to lose their credibility and hence, the distrust of our followers. So long as we do not practice what we preach, do what we tell them to do, we cannot expect to command their respect and trust. Using our office to coerce them to do what we want will only breed anger and resentment and even hatred. If Jesus is our Good Shepherd, it is because He lived what He preached. It was His fidelity to His Father unto death that earns Him our trust. He walked before us before He asked us to follow after Him. That is why He said, ‘The Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. No one takes it from me; I lay it down of my own free will.”
In the light of our failure as leaders, or even when we, like Jesus, have truly been grossly misunderstood and rejected, let us come to the Good Shepherd for healing. Not only do members need healing, but even more so leaders, because we bear the burdens of those under our care. Unless we seek healing, we will only allow our wounds to hurt others, for indirectly and often unconsciously, our pain, anger, resentment, the sense of betrayal and injustice will lead us to be negative towards them, regard them as our enemies and even take revenge on them subtly. Leaders are wounded healers. This presupposes that they are healed before they can tend to the wounds of others. Otherwise, we only expose our raw wounds, turning them away. We cannot heal others unless we ourselves are constantly seeking healing from the Lord. As parents and leaders, we need to turn to the Good Shepherd for healing.