Leadership can be learnt – trust me, I learnt the hard way

AlBaraa H Taibah leadershipArticle provided by AlBaraa H. Taibah

I learned a lot about leadership in classes during my MBA, and afterwards, running national transformational education programs in Saudi Arabia.

But my best lessons came when, while studying for an MBA, I switched Boston for the Sahara. My clean, ordered bedroom for a wooden plank in the desert and my fellow students for a herd of 164 stubborn sheep. Why?

I wanted to really explore, grow and understand what truly makes a successful leader. I was convinced that the ancient art of shepherding might hold the key. Shepherding was the profession of all the great religious prophets and I pursued a journey to discover why, the hard way.

What I learnt transformed me – it was possibly a crazy thing to do – but I have always been a believer in stepping outside of the classroom and actually experiencing the things you are trying to learn.

Was it tough? Yes but more than anything else this experience taught me important lessons about myself, about self-reliance and about leadership. Here’s what I learnt:

Lesson One:  Add value

In my very first minute with the flock, I tried asserting my authority out loud: “hello, I am your leader”. The response? They turned their backs to me.

Each day I offered food and water, opened gates to let them pass, cleaned up their left overs. Slowly, they allowed me to get close to them. I realised it was only when I served them, repeatedly, that they began to accept me.

It wasn’t about being a human, or having skills, or even being a leader. It was about bringing value to them. Thus, here is a question to ask yourself, what value do you bring to your organization and the individuals in your team?

Lesson Two: Know yourself

The herd’s flat-out rejection of me was not my only challenge. I was totally isolated from the modern world. No internet, no electricity, no toilet. No people. Only snakes, fear, silence and scorching desert  heat.

The desert is a place where you do not have the option to choose the way you live. You just live the way it is. This teaches you to adapt and to lead, no matter the situation.

It also teaches you how to continue surviving and continue leading no matter how fearful you are or how hard it is to adapt to change. This requires you to build full awareness of your thoughts and emotions. I learnt this to be absolutely key to my ability to continue leading.

Lesson Three: Build trust

Finally, the day came where the sheep did not turn their back on me. But this wasn’t enough. I needed them to follow me, willingly and with confidence. I needed to guide them on the routes where they could find food in the desert, or they would die.

It is only with continuous commitment that they start taking the path that you take and stopping when you stop. The sheep valuing me was one thing, but trust and having faith in the leader is another.

Trust is essential to leadership. Without it, it is only a matter of time until the relationship collapses. Do we trust the boss who assumes he or she alone has the solution for everything, who treats people like machines or who thinks only of profit margin. Of course not – we trust the leader who cares about his staff, is humble and experienced, and who offers his or her employees the same trust and respect as he or she expects back.


 The Modern Shepherd: Leadership Secrets and Life Wisdom I Learned while Shepherding by AlBaraa H. Taibah is out now in paperback and ebook, priced at £4.99.

About the author

Top education leader and TEDx speaker AlBaraa H. Taibah left his Boston life behind, and ventured, alone, into the Sahara to see what he could learn from herding 111 stubborn sheep through a deadly desert. A profound experience, he, at 29, then became one of the youngest ever school principals in Saudi Arabia.

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