Lambscaping, Scapegoating, and the Real Purpose of Power

I am the good shepherd.
A good shepherd lays down his life
for the sheep.

John 10:11

Recently, we had a “spring cleanup” completed on our yard. The mulch is refreshed, the trees and bushes are trimmed, and green abounds in all corners. Admiring the work completed, our young grandson offered a compliment, “Nanny, I really like your lambscaping.” Oh, what a joy to share in the innocent wonder of the little lamb.

Curiously, today’s Gospel is the parable of the good shepherd and “lambscaping” seems a perfect word to characterize the notion of shepherding, or leading, a flock to fertile fields, life-giving water, and safe pastures. Little Cooper’s word evokes a sense of formation, helping in another’s becoming, whether through direct, hands-on effort, or through indirect example. Lambscaping is a beautifully simple metaphor for our responsibility, and opportunity, to guide, mentor, and participate in such formation.

Last week, I had the opportunity to present to a room of healthcare leaders on various market trends and the challenges and opportunities therein. Opening my talk, I commented, “Throughout today’s presentation, you’ll notice a theme around power and control. Any person or organization whose decisions affect the health and/or economics of individuals, organizations, and communities, is wielding power. Great power.”

The notion of power is problematic for most of us. As individuals, we frequently feel little power in our day-to-day existence. We are moved along by traffic signs, roads, jobs, laws, weather, and other people, which perpetually remind us how little power, and control, we really have. It’s easy to feel small in this big world. We view those with “power” as faceless, sitting somewhere else, and making decisions that affect us. We cast a suspicious eye on any who claim or exert power over us and resent any blatant application of such authority.

Yet, we exist within this framework of power and control, accepting the necessity of laws to govern us and authority figures to enforce them. Politics and government are comprised of the necessary tension of power and limits, those who direct and manage us in our jobs are necessary cogs in the wheel of structure, and even our social ties fall within some version this pecking order of control as we respond to the pressure of influence and norms. We live under a “power law” that helps define and enforce levels of acceptability in our behaviors – the power structure holds the system together.

As I continued in my presentation to those healthcare leaders, my next statement was, “With great power comes great responsibility.” The more lives our decisions affect, the bigger the responsibility. We see this easily in things like laws that are made and then affect all of us. However, we need not wait for laws to feel the effects of others’ decisions. This is why we tend to pool together in social efforts to mitigate imbalances of power. We do this politically but the organizations to which we belong are also built around the power law – even the smallest company is in a persistent struggle to assert itself, and its interests, in a world constantly pressing upon it.

Great power and great responsibility. But responsibility to whom? Employees? Members? Investors? Communities? With competing interests, the great dance of power centers on living in the tension of it. Here, we find the imperfect place in which those interests find a way to compromise. However, if that balance is not maintained, those of us disadvantaged in the imbalance begin to blame the other. In a complex world, it is not always clear who is on what side of which line.

Enter the scapegoat – the sacrificial target of blame which may or may not be the actual problem or center of disagreement. In a media-driven world, narratives around scapegoats are easy to start and perpetuate. Politicians respond to them, organizations react, and the flock follows right along. Pushed to the edge of such tensions, we can’t help but choose our side and gird our loins for the fight. If we’re lucky enough to not be in the scapegoat camp, perhaps our interests can prevail.

Of course, the good shepherd lays down his life for his sheep. That’s one of the preciously counter-intuitive notions of leadership. Sometimes, I have to surrender my desires – ambition, self-interest, fame – for the good of the flock. The responsibility of the shepherd is safeguarding, leading, and ultimately, helping his flock flourish.

How does the good shepherd reconcile power, control, and goodness? By remembering his lambs. When we look at individuals, good stewardship becomes more obvious. Supporting the good of the person, embracing the dignity of the individual is pretty straightforward. Individual lambscaping seems good and right and proper. We seem to get into more trouble when we line up in our flocks.

To those wielding power today, I challenge you to begin with a bit of lambscaping in your flock. Good stewardship is a moral and economic call. The good shepherd thinks first of the well-being of the individuals counting on him. From there, the proper use of power becomes much more clear as it is used in the service of the other rather than for self-benefit.

  • Jaime Borkowski

    Excellent reminders for those of us working on building our servant-leader mentality (or those of us who should)! Our organization’s main motto is ‘patients first’, and although I do not always see that embodied in their decisions, I try to come back to it whenever there is a tough question that has more than one compelling alternative.

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