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Experts cover today’s key dairy labor issues and offer fool-proof techniques to optimize employee performance, sat­isfaction and longevity.

Leadership: What Can We Learn from Cows?

Jul 27, 2012

Consider servant leadership, a style that seems unlikely but actually can be very effective.

Duvall, Shaun pro photo 1 11   CopyBy Shaun Duvall, Puentes/Bridges

As dairy people, you have forgotten more than I’ll ever know about cow behavior. What I want to talk about today is leadership. We can observe leadership in cows, in people and in almost any group of organisms. We have all seen groups of cows entering the parlor or in their corrals. There are almost always a few cows that come in first to the parlor and the others always follow.

We all know others in our communities, peer groups or professional associations who are natural leaders. They just make us want to follow them. We yield to what they suggest because we trust their judgment.

What do these leaders have that makes others want to follow them? What is a leader? Until I became a part of Leadership Wisconsin in 2008, I thought leaders were people who just made others do stuff. They simply ordered other folks around. Since that time, I have come to learn that there are many, many kinds and styles of leadership.

Today, I’d like to share with you a style of leadership that seems unlikely but actually can be very effective. It is not a popular style in our politics, but it maybe should be. It is called servant leadership. A giant in this style of leadership is Robert Greenleaf. ( I copy below two paragraphs about servant leadership.

“The servant-leader is servant first. . . . It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first. Then conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead. That person is sharply different from one who is leader first, perhaps because of the need to assuage an unusual power drive or to acquire material possessions. . . . The leader-first and the servant-first are two extreme types. Between them there are shadings and blends that are part of the infinite variety of human nature.”

“The difference manifests itself in the care taken by the servant-first to make sure that other people’s highest priority needs are being served. The best test, and difficult to administer, is: Do those served grow as persons? Do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants? And, what is the effect on the least privileged in society? Will they benefit or at least not be further deprived?”

I think this means that, in the arena of a dairy, your employees’ needs become paramount. You do whatever you can to help them meet their needs. (This doesn’t mean you are their slave, but whatever is within your power, you do). You recognize you owe them more than a paycheck. Doing this establishes a relationship of trust with them. Once you have earned their trust, they will reciprocate. You then can easily lead them, because you first helped them. The difference is that they want to follow you, because you have proven that you are interested and committed to their best interest.

Next time, I’d like to talk about some concrete ways that you can be a servant leader. Easy, feasible ways you can establish and build a relationship with your employees.

Puentes/Bridges is a nonprofit organization that, under Shaun Duvall’s direction, promotes cultural understanding, particularly in the dairy industry. Duvall also operates SJD Language & Culture Services, LLC, a translation and interpretation business. For more information, contact Shaun Duvall at or (608) 685-4705.

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