Great Leaders are Champions, Not Shepherds

John Longstreet is the CEO of Quaker Steak and Lube, a motor-themed, family fun restaurant chain.  He is also one of the best leaders we have ever known.

Chip first met John when Longstreet was the general manager of the Harvey Hotel in Plano, Texas.  He was also a two-term mayor of the city.  Chip invited him to come do a Q&A session in his service leadership classes for a major client held at John’s hotel.  When a class participant asked John the most important trait of an effective service leader he did not hesitate:  “Make your employees successful.”

His answer stuck with us for years.  As we worked with organizations renowned for great service and watched their leaders in action, we witnessed the actualization of John’s assessment.  Simon Cooper at Ritz-Carlton, Tom Schultz at Starbucks, Tony Hsieh at Zappos, Jeff Bezos at Amazon and Liz Smith at Bloomin’ Brands share a common focus--concentrate on making your associates successful and they will perform with commitment, excellence and passion.

Sheep are by nature followers.  A flock without a shepherd will typically have one sheep that assumes the leadership.  It is not a permanent role, like an alpha sheep.  The flock will blindly follow the momentary flock leader, even over a cliff!  Shepherds become a surrogate alpha-sheep to the flock---leading them to new pastures and protecting them from predators.  The leader as a shepherd presumes followers are much like sheep in need of a guide and protector.

John Longstreet operates from the premise that associates need neither a father-figure nor a protector.  He assumes his associates are bright responsible adults who need a barrier remover, not a prodder; an advocate who supports, not a boss who rescues.  Leaders like Longstreet help employees become successful through six key practices.

They Keep the Flame Burning

People need a constant they can count on in times of change.  That constant must be compelling and relevant; a foundation for everything.  It is the flame that evokes a sense of purpose or calling.  At Ritz-Carlton, the purpose is “Ladies and gentlemen serving ladies and gentlemen.”  At Zappos, it is “Deliver WOW through service.”  Leaders who champion keep the flame burning by giving every employee a match!

In his book Stewardship, author Peter Block states, “The traditional process is that management creates its vision and then the enrollment process begins. . . . Enrollment is soft-core colonialism, a subtle form of control through participation.  Nothing has changed in the belief in control, consistency, and predictability, only the packaging is different.”  Great leaders involve everyone in the dialogue about mission and direction.

They Keep in Touch

“You can pretend to care, you cannot pretend to be there,” wrote Bix “Tex” Bender in his book Don’t Squat With Yer Spurs On!  Bender was describing a vital feature of a leader: command presence.  Command presence is not about control, it is about connection; it is not about power, it is about partnership.  Leaders with command presence convey character through leading out front, not leading from the office or on email.

Davy Crockett was a leader with command presence.  “David Crockett seemed to be the leading spirit.  He was everywhere,” wrote Enrique Esparza, eyewitness to the Alamo, in a newspaper article following the legendary siege.  Great leaders focus on being there, everywhere, not in absentia.  And, when they are there, they are all there—focused, engaged and willing to spend time.  They abhor “drive-by leadership” like making an orchestrated appearance only at special events.

They Keep Out of the Way

We use the phrase “keep out of the way” not as an invitation to hands-off abandonment, but rather as a caution never to use more leadership than is needed.  If we have hired smart people and given them solid preparation and clear assignments, they shouldn’t need a shepherd to watch over them.  Great leaders empower.  Empowerment does not mean unlimited license; it means responsible freedom—giving associates the freedom to solve customer problems and answer questions on the spot.

Empowerment also means helping people think like owners, coupling take-care-of-the-customer service with take-care-of-the-organization stewardship.  That takes ensuring everyone has the most up-to-date information, the best training, and the kind of sincere inclusion that helps employees feel like insiders and not like mercenaries.

They Keep Relationships Egalitarian

Power-free is the essence of an effective partnership.  Leaders who champion create relationships that are vision-centered, not power-centered.  They focus on support, not subservience; on commitment, not compliance.  They enlist associates as fellow alliance builders, working as equals for the greater good of pursuing the vision.

Egalitarian relationships are ego-less.  The focus shifts from “all about me” to “all about us.”  Great partnering needs broad guidelines that provide “solution spaces” in which to operate.  It takes knowing that mistakes won’t be fatal; it relies on understanding that missteps will be viewed as learning experiences, not handled with punitive measures.

They Keep Their Promises

Leaders who champion communicate an enthusiasm for the privilege of being of service to their associates.  They lead with trust-building humility.  They are unimpressed with the trappings of supremacy and more interested in communicating an authentic spirit and an egalitarian style.  They foster an atmosphere of trust and responsible risk-taking.

The trusting organization values generosity over miserly squeezing every dollar out of every transaction.  This doesn’t mean giving away the shop.  Everyone in the organization should protect and grow the assets of the enterprise.  However, customers long remember organizations that refrain from nickel-and-diming them to death.  That customer orientation is founded on how well employees are trusted by the leaders.

And, They Keep Jelly Beans on Their Desks

“Jelly beans” is our code word for the sense of fun today’s employees desperately need.  As customers aim their anxiety at the front line, employees need the bulletproof vest that can come from high self-esteem.  Happy employees are resilient in times of chaos, courageous in moments of conflict.  Sourcing an emotional strength that is bolstered by an affirming environment, they are able to absorb tension, converting it into compassion in arduous situations.

Leaders who champion are ambassadors of happy.  They poke fun at themselves.  They look for ways to shake up the place with quirky events, silly signs, and commemorative occasions.  They constantly seek the means, moments, and methods to convey gratitude and encouragement for excellence.  They are quick to celebrate and eager to affirm.  William James said: “The deepest craving of human nature is the need to feel valued.”

In a brain-based economy, organizations cannot afford to have sheep-like employees who are subservient, risk-averse and blindly compliant.  The number of U.S. workers with a college degree is higher than the number of workers with a high school diploma only.  Today’s challenging times call for boldness, innovation and bringing out the best.  Unengaged employees are not willing to “leave it all on the field or court.”  It is the leader who champions who fosters passion-filled productivity and the perpetual pursuit of betterment.

© Chip Bell Group, 2023.  Courtesy of John R. Patterson (  Permission is given to download and distribute this article as long as it contains this copyright notice.