XVII: The Good Shepherd

Hexagram 17: Following
Hexagram 17: Following

The greatest among you will be your servant.
Matthew 23:11 (NRSV)

In employing the metaphor of a shepherd, I run the risk of implying that people are nothing more than useless sheep in need of a saving guide carrying a staff or at least awesome facial hair. This is not my intention. This hexagram is about  the kind of leader that is followed because of his sincere care for and sensitivity to the needs of those who follow him – not the sort of leader driven by ambitions and power-lust and greed. More like a shepherd and less like a prince or a general – see?

Yeah, see?
Yeah, see?

Having said that, wouldn’t it be nice if we poor sheep actually had the sort of leader whose interests are based in joy and sincerity? Such a person rarely, if ever, emerges in our society. This hexagram, almost entirely political in nature, describes the nature and characteristics of this good kind of shepherd (and, not least of all, reminds us firmly that such a person can exist).

The requirements are so unbelievably simple: in order to lead, one must seek to serve. After all, a true shepherd is not all orders and whacks. The shepherd gets his hands dirty. The shepherd seeks out the lost to make sure everyone is included. The shepherd heals wounds and nurtures diseases. The shepherd is responsible for warding off predators, not to mention making sure there are places to hang out with grass. As I said, unbelievably simple, right? Yet this maxim is probably simultaneously one of the most oft-repeated throughout widely varying global cultures and traditions (Jesus’ version is above) as well as one of the most ignored of ancient and timeless maxims. Take a quick look, in your mind, at your current leaders and representatives. Surely you will find some – perhaps one or two – who serve the people they represent, but most will fail that test.

The fact of the matter is, though, when someone induces people to follow him through deceit or brute strength or clever tricks, the results always include a substantial element of resistance. This leadership can never be truly effective – for either the leader or the followers – because it is based on poor, conflict-promoting foundations. In a similar way, if someone grows for himself a following based on his own condescension towards those beneath him, the quality of the following is diminished greatly. The people who follow him are doing so purely out of their own self-interest. If he becomes dependent upon their help, the time will come when the people’s self-interest will diverge from that of the leader, and steep downfall will be the result.

Instead, the true leader must be free of ego and ambition. Not only must she be prepared and ready for the task itself, she must herself be properly aligned, correct in both approach and behavior. Even with good intentions, if one is not equipped with a fully-functioning spiritual compass, the endeavor will likely end badly. That’s the key right there: you have to have a certain North Star of the Soul upon which you can always rely to steer your course. Servant-based leadership requires one to be open to the opinions of others, but one must never abandon one’s core principles and morality for the sake of temporary and short-sighted views.

At the same time, this openness and receptivity to the people is a serious responsibility. It is not merely enough to be open to differing opinions and adaptable to the needs of a given time, but the good shepherd must not surround herself with only the like-minded and those otherwise similar to herself. She needs to be able to mingle freely with all types of people, even, with complete confidence, her enemies. The flip side of that coin is that one cannot truly keep counsel with both good and evil influences at the same time. If she spends too much time around inferior forces, she risks losing out on the benefit of the superior and light-based people. When the correct righteous type of connections are found, the good shepherd is inevitably going to lose some of the lesser elements she possessed before. Though this can certainly feel disappointing and difficult, she must take heart in doing the right thing and succeeding onward to the next stage.

The good shepherd possesses the power of thunder, but not the thunder of spring and summer but that of autumn and winter. Latent thunder. Thunder at rest. Energy able to respond to the needs of the given moment. This energy is life-long, for there is no true retirement for the successful master. Even when one’s work in society on Earth is completed, one’s protege shepherds always may require one’s return to help continue the work.

In the meantime, the hexagram also advises all leaders and shepherds of the importance of nightly rest. Nothing, we are told, can possibly work out for the best unless it is viewed with the clear eyes of the properly rested. Perhaps the strongest attribute in the hexagram, however, an attribute we have not even yet mentioned, is that of joy. At the end of the day, it’s the joy of the shepherd that induces others to follow.

Take heart, and take up your staff, if you’re up for it.


Salaam indeed.
Salaam indeed.


This post is the seventeenth of sixty-four in our Days of Change series exploring each hexagram of the ancient Chinese I Ching one by one. To sample others in this series – or go wild and read from the beginning – go here.

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