Is “Tending the Herd” Good Leadership?

By | October 25, 2014

[October 24, 2014] A common tendency of many large bureaucratic organizations is to sputter along, avoiding controversy and dodging problems whenever possible. I call this method “tending the herd.” The British call it “muddling through;” where organizations and people just continue doing what they were doing, often despite any difficulties or confusion around them. There is value in maintaining a fully operational organization that gets the daily work completed. However, I propose that tending the herd is not good leadership.

All of us have known leaders in high positions like this; those that want things to be “just like it’s always been.” “Why fix it if it ain’t broke,” we are told. When things go well, these leaders can be found on the golf course; doing something unrelated to the organizational mission. When things go poorly, you will find them either absent or giving innocuous speeches and pronouncements from their office. They’ll tell us to, “work smarter not harder.” These leaders function in a type of maintenance mode where they just want to get back to the normal. They are content to simply ride it out. If there are problems, they will find someone to blame for it, conduct investigations, issue rehashed corporate statements, and do something to get by. Their only real goal is not to be held accountable.

Sadly, this is the culture of too many organizations. Government in particular, at all levels, has a propensity to operate in this manner. When the rare event occurs that someone is held accountable, it is seldom someone senior. When the U.S. Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki resigned, it surprised very few people, yet those that were directly responsible for the problems are still at work or on paid administrative leave.1 There was certainly no plan of action when an unsurprising problem occurred. No wonder government agencies have a reputation for terrible customer service, incompetence, and lack accountability. Private businesses also have their problems. In particular, many start-up businesses fail in the first years of operation for similar reasons.

When senior leaders in organizations are satisfied with “tending the herd,” inevitably the “herd” will get loose. Problems will invariably happen. Without a well-developed proactive plan, the organization lacks focus and leaders will fail to recognize opportunities. There can be the most intelligent and creative employees working very hard, yet when their leadership fails them by not providing a strategy that paints a picture how to endure, success will not follow. Leaders should be aware that tending the herd is not true leadership for this is doomed to failure. Only by advancing a plan of action that is communicated to everyone and each employee understands their place in that plan, will the organization be capable of success.

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[1] Yesterday we find out that the first VA official to be punished was fired this Friday under a new law meant to “speed the removal of agency executives for misconduct or poor performance.” See article:


Author: Douglas R. Satterfield

Hello. I'm Doug and I provide at least one article every day on some leadership topic. I welcome comments and also guests who would like to write an article. Thanks for reading my blog.

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