Wolves and Shepherds


I’m going to continue a long tradition of designing a convenient dichotomy that oversimplifies a complicated reality: separating high career performers into two groups: wolves and shepherds

As different as they may be, wolves and shepherds need the same thing to fulfill their purpose: sheep.  

Wolves used to be the mainstay of capitalism, but have seen their popularity decline publicly over the last two decades. At their worst, they are snake oil salesman and charlatans; at their best, they often become captains of industry and leading statesmen. Wolves are driven by a one-track thinking: predate. Win. Face challenge and take it down. They exploit emotional intelligence to gain with little if any regard for the experiences of others. 

Wolves are performance machines. Their wins are correlated with the losses of sheep.


Shepherds, in contrast, are the mainstay of a more progressive brand of capitalism. Shepherds want to win, but their wins are largely accomplished through the protection of sheep. At their worst, they are underdeveloped tyrants whose ego depends on dependent sycophants; at their best, they are gregarious executives that invest in the future of their people.  They use emotional intelligence to win the trust of others and subtlety guide them in desired directions.

Shepherds are people commanders. Their wins are correlated with the appraisal of sheep. 

Sales, business development, and strategy are all realms where wolflike behavior is advantageous, whereas employee engagement, organizational functioning, and operations all benefit from shepherding behaviors. 

In many ways, a primary purpose of wolves is to exploit the sheep of rival shepherds and the primary purpose of shepherds is to protect against this predation.

 (As a side note: tyrannical shepherds are often wolves in disguise; however, the benefits they receive from obedient sheep trump the benefit they receive from attacking them.) 

For those looking to expand their professional value an excellent question to reflect upon is, “how do I orient to others?” If you are prone to wolflike behaviors, you’ll likely prefer working alone, rarely delegate, and deploy cunning regularly to win. If you are prone to shepherding behaviors, you’ll likely prefer collaborative environments, frequently delegate, and leverage social capital to win. 

A final note: neither is inherently better than than the other, but it is important to explore which behaviors you exhibit more often. Wolf-behavior in scenarios where shepherding is more efficacious can be distastrous for reputation and shepherd-behavior in wolf dens often ends in considerable loss.

Know where you’re playing, know how you generally behave and continually ask yourself this question: are you more of a wolf or more of a shepherd?


Bryce Brown

Southern California Neuropsychology Grou, 21031 Ventura Blvd, Woodland Hills, CA, 91364, United States

Bryce Brown is an consultant and partner at people + organization strategy firm Conover+Brown and executive produces learning and development channel, OrganizationTV.