Beekeeper, Shepherd and Cowboy

In my previous blog entry, I identified three primary roles of a good leader, which I called beekeeper, shepard, and cowboy. This entry explains the roles in more detail.


Bees are very self-sufficient creatures. They know what to do, and they are very eager to go do it. The role of the beekeeper in an apiary is to create an environment in which the bees can be productive.

The beekeeper must provide the physical resources that a colony of bees needs to produce honey, including a hive in which to build their honeycombs. And the beekeeper must make sure the bees have access to nectar-producing flowers. The bees are also a vital part of farming, so the beekeeper will work to establish a symbiotic relationship with agriculture, ensuring that the bees have plenty of nectar, and in turn the bees provide a pollinating service to the farmer.

It's not sufficient for a beekeeper to simply own bees. In order for bees to be productive, the beekeeper needs to ensure that the colony consists of the right members -- a queen, drones, and workers (both foragers and ripeners). Having the right combination of bees is essential to a productive colony.

A beekeeper cannot force a bee to make honey; he does not have to. Bees do what bees do naturally, and will remain with the colony and work hard as long as there are appropriate resources for them to do their job. A beekeeper cannot tell a bee how to make honey. If he tried, he'd probably get stung on the nose (I once got an email from a manager saying, "We have a lot of bugs. Let's assign engineers, get them root-caused, and implement fixes asap." Sometimes I wish I had a stinger!) A beekeeper does not count the number of flowers a bee visits each day; he measures the colony based on its output, the amount of honey being produced. A beekeeper cannot force a bee to stay with the hive. Bees are free to leave whenever they want. The beekeeper trusts the bees to return every evening. And when the hive is overcrowded, the beekeeper tries to prepare another hive so the bees can expand without having to leave the apiary.

Engineering project leaders need to look at the system in total -- the system that our project fits into, and the system of individuals that make up our team and our organization. As a beekeeper, the project leader acts as:

  • Systems Engineer: Looks at the overall design to ensure that the product fits within the system, just as the colony fits into the environment.
  • Team Builder: Works to ensure the project team has the right members, with the appropriate mix of skills in the correct quantities. Works with other teams and organizations to achieve symbiosis with other organizations.
  • Empowerer: Trusts the engineers on his team to do good work, and empowers them to make decisions.
This aspect of leadership is often overlooked by team members. When a project goes smoothly, no one notices that the leader has been working his tail (stinger?) off making sure that the project is well defined and the team has everything they need to do their jobs the best way they can. The best compliment I ever got was when a team member said of me, "He clears roadblocks so I can just do my job."


Sheep follow a shepherd because they know and trust him; and the shepherd knows his sheep. A shepherd typically does not own the flock. He's a hired hand charged with their care. He needs to make sure the sheep are safe, healthy and growing. He leads them into areas with grass to eat, safe from wolves and other predators. A shepherd knows each and everyone of his sheep, and when one is in trouble, he will leave the flock to go help.

A shepherd moves the flock as a cohesive group. He does not need to force sheep to follow him. He simply leads the way, and they follow because they know that he is always acting in their best interest. Being organized in a flock is also safer for the sheep -- they can look out for each other.

A shepherd will brag about his flock, and praise his sheep. He doesn't walk around saying, "I'm a great shepherd," for if he did, people would tell him to get back to tending the sheep. Instead he promotes his sheep, keeps them healthy, happy and productive, and brags about them, and as people admire the flock, they will also recognize the shepherd that tends them.

Engineering project leaders need to recognize that the people we work with are indeed human beings. It sounds funny to say this, but all too often one can start treating people as tools to get a job done, looking at head count instead of faces. As a shepherd, the project leader acts as:

  • Guide: Moves the team in an organized and calm manner through difficult situations, earning the trust of the team members.
  • Relationship Builder: Builds relationships with team members, and establishes relationships with other teams, management, and customers.
  • Mentor: Always looks out for the well being of the team members. Ensures they have the opportunity to grow, learn, and improve.

I was once at a conference and a presenter was talking about the importance of establishing rapport with others. "Get to know them as people, their likes and dislikes, their hobbies. And when you need help, they'll be more willing to come to your aid," she explained. One member of the audience (whom I'm ashamed to admit I actually knew personally) raised his hand and asked, "Won't they eventually see through this?" The presenter looked confused. "You know," he continued, "all this pretending to be interested in them." That illustrates the difference between most people and good leaders -- good leaders do not pretend to be interested; they develop genuine relationships with others.

Cowboy: Goal Oriented

The term cowboy can have a negative connotation: someone who works outside the rules. But here I'm referring to the real, working cowboy, who moves a herd of cattle across the countryside.

Before starting a cattle drive, the cowboy needs to select a route. He factors in all sorts of environmental variables -- snowfall, river depths, etc -- and plans where the herd should be on any given day, based on the number of miles they should be able to traverse of a given terrain. The cowboy looks at the big picture, and determines the best way to accomplish the goal.

Out on the drive, the cowboy keeps the cattle moving quickly in the right direction. Speed is important, but so too is keeping the herd together and organized. He prods the slow cattle to keep up with the herd, and makes sure the faster ones don't get too far ahead of their peers. And when cattle wander off in the right direction, he's there to lead them back onto the right path.

Always, the cowboy is thinking about the goal, and monitoring the herd's progress toward that goal.

Engineering project leaders need to identify the goal, and drive everyone toward a successful finish. As a cowboy, the project leader acts as:

  • Visionary: Understands the goal, and all the factors that stand between his team and achieving the goal.
  • Motivator: Encourages everyone on the team to keep moving forward.
  • Navigator: Keeps everyone moving in the right direction, never losing sight of the ultimate goal.

Some leaders are good beekeepers and shepherds, but lack the cowboy drive. They'll assemble a great team, and identify the goal, then sit back and hope something good happens. I call them laissez-faire leaders -- they exhibit a hands-off approach to leading their teams. Good leaders will know what every single team members is working on, where there are, and where they need to go next in order for the entire team to achieve its goal.

One Trick Ponies

I'm mixing metaphors here, but I have seen many examples of leaders which exhibit one of the leadership roles I've outlined above: one-trick ponies. They can be successful, but their lack of well-roundedness will always hold them back.

Consider the leader who is only a good bee keeper. They will understand the product, and perhaps have a great vision of what it should be, but they're unable to drive the organization toward the goal. They may understand how to work the corporate system, but lack the skills to form a close-knit team. They tend to be alouf and introspective. People often say of them, "He's got great ideas, but he never delivers."

The leader who's a shepherd builds a great team -- his people trust him and love to work for him. But the team itself tends to be unproductive. They don't have a key product they're working on. Or they wander aimlessly around, from technology to technology. Or they develop a great technology but are unable to get all the bugs out and it never ships. I worked at a company that fired a shepherd once; all of the engineers were irate because he was a beloved manager, but in all the years I worked there, he had never delivered a product.

Finally, the cowboy drives people hard and never loses sight of the goal. But in the process, he often overworks his team members; in turn, the team members tend not to trust him because they believe he'd betray them to achieve his own goals. This person also moves forward without regard to how the system works. From a technical perspective, they deliver a feature that doesn't play with the other product features. From an organizational perspective, they don't follow established processes, and are always seeking waivers, or bad-mouthing the system for holding them back.

Playing one, or even two of the leadership roles can result in a marginally successful leader. But when a person understands and plays all three roles, they perform at a much higher level.

Copyright 2007, Robert J. Hueston. All rights reserved.

I am profound by your comment on the differant aspects of leaders. I stumbled upon it while doing a google search, and I must say that the Beekeeper, the Shepherd, and the Cowboy fit all types of leaders, not just engineers. I am in the military and of course there are leaders and I was able to fit a person (or leader) into each of those catagories. I feel as though I am a shepherd and my boss is a cowboy, I try to look out for my soldiers and get to know each one, while my supervisor only looks at where we need to be and when. Some good thinking here and I would like to take it along with me.

Posted by Justin on February 28, 2007 at 07:38 PM EST #


Posted by guest on May 11, 2008 at 03:19 PM EDT #

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Bob Hueston


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