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If it looks like a wolf, and barks like a wolf….it might be a sheepdog

Part 2 in the Veteran Passionate Employer Series

The first step towards becoming Veteran Passionate is developing empathy. Empathy is NOT sympathy. Sympathy would be feeling sorry for veterans for their sacrifices - and that’s an instant turnoff to all veterans. Instead, empathy is about feeling with someone else. It requires you to put yourself in his/her shoes and guide your actions from a place of commonality. Empathy is not understanding. You won’t ever understand the life of a veteran because you have not lived it. But you can attempt to learn about his/her values and what drives them to action. The cornerstone of this is an understanding of the warrior mindset. 

The warrior mindset frequently clashes with the general populous due to the warrior’s ability to visit violence on another human being. I recognize there is a lot of noise in our culture right now around warriors and violent acts. It is not my intent to start a discourse on ethical matters, but instead to encourage you to put aside all the noise in the media right now and simply seek to understand as you would any foreign culture.

Growing up in a home with Army vets for parents, the concept of being willing to lay down my life for others was never taught, it was just lived and known. The first time I encountered someone who asked how I could possibly be willing to take another person’s life, I was baffled. It wasn’t like I was running around looking for someone to kill, but I have always known that I would put myself in the line of fire to defend innocent people and would be willing to take the life of anyone trying to kill innocent people. I had always assumed this was how everyone thought.

At the FBI academy I heard an analogy that helped me frame this clash of ideals. In his book, “On Combat”, Lt. Col. David Grossman (ret’d) tells a story a war veteran shared with him. This analogy uses sheep, wolf, and sheepdogs as the characters. I want to emphasize that at no time is the category of “sheep” a derogatory one, it is simply intended to pictorialize the protected and the protector. You can read the full excerpt on Colonel Grossman's website. Below is a portion of the original, which I've cut down to retain the essence of the analogy while keeping it succinct:

One Vietnam veteran, an old retired colonel, once said this to me: “Most of the people in our society are sheep. They are kind, gentle, productive creatures who can only hurt one another by accident.” This is true... the vast majority of Americans are not inclined to hurt one another.

Thus there is a paradox, and we must grasp both ends of the situation: We may well be in the most violent times in history, but violence is still remarkably rare. This is because most citizens are kind, decent people who are not capable of hurting each other, except by accident or under extreme provocation. They are sheep.

“Then there are the wolves,” the old war veteran said, “and the wolves feed on the sheep without mercy.” Do you believe there are wolves out there who will feed on the flock without mercy? You better believe it. There are evil men in this world and they are capable of evil deeds. 

“Then there are sheepdogs,” he went on, “and I’m a sheepdog. I live to protect the flock and confront the wolf.” 

If you have no capacity for violence, then you are a healthy productive citizen: a sheep. If you have a capacity for violence and no empathy for your fellow citizens, then you have defined an aggressive sociopath--a wolf. But what if you have a capacity for violence, and a deep love for your fellow citizens? Then you are a sheepdog, a warrior, someone who is walking the hero’s path. 

veryone has been given a gift in life. Some people have a gift for science and some have a flair for art. And warriors have been given the gift of aggression. They would no more misuse this gift than a doctor would misuse his healing arts, but they yearn for the opportunity to use their gift to help others. These people, the ones who have been blessed with the gift of aggression and a love for others, are our sheepdogs. These are our warriors.

Let me expand on this old soldier’s excellent model of the sheep, wolves, and sheepdogs. We know that the sheep ... do not want to believe that there is evil in the world. 

The sheep generally do not like the sheepdog. He looks a lot like the wolf. He has fangs and the capacity for violence. The difference, though, is that the sheepdog must not, cannot and will not ever harm the sheep. Any sheepdog who intentionally harms the lowliest little lamb will be punished and removed. The world cannot work any other way, at least not in a representative democracy or a republic such as ours.

Still, the sheepdog disturbs the sheep. He is a constant reminder that there are wolves in the land. They would prefer that he didn’t tell them where to go, or give them traffic tickets, or stand at the ready in our airports in camouflage fatigues holding an M-16. 

Until the wolf shows up. Then the entire flock tries desperately to hide behind one lonely sheepdog. 

The students, the victims, at Columbine High School were big, tough high school students, and under ordinary circumstances they would not have had the time of day for a police officer. They were not bad kids; they just had nothing to say to a cop. When the school was under attack, however, and SWAT teams were clearing the rooms and hallways, the officers had to physically peel those clinging, sobbing kids off of them. This is how the little lambs feel about their sheepdog when the wolf is at the door. Look at what happened after September 11, 2001, when the wolf pounded hard on the door. Remember how America, more than ever before, felt differently about their law enforcement officers and military personnel? Remember how many times you heard the word “hero”?

Understand that there is nothing morally superior about being a sheepdog; it is just what you choose to be. Also understand that a sheepdog is a funny critter: He is always sniffing around out on the perimeter, checking the breeze, barking at things that go bump in the night, and yearning for a righteous battle. That is, the young sheepdogs yearn for a righteous battle. The old sheepdogs are a little older and wiser, but they move to the sound of the guns when needed right along with the young ones.

Here is how the sheep and the sheepdog think differently. The sheep pretend the wolf will never come, but the sheepdog lives for that day. After the attacks on September 11, 2001, most of the sheep, that is, most citizens in America said, “Thank God I wasn’t on one of those planes.” The sheepdogs, the warriors, said, “Dear God, I wish I could have been on one of those planes. Maybe I could have made a difference.” When you are truly transformed into a warrior and have truly invested yourself into warriorhood, you want to be there. You want to be able to make a difference.

Why do I share this with you? It is not to extol the virtues of “Sheepdog-ness” nor is it to paint anyone as stronger or weaker than another. Rather, it is to acknowledge the fact that there is something within the warrior that may set you ill-at-ease because it reminds you of a predator. With this knowledge, you can bring awareness to your own reactions and think through how you will choose to respond when you recognize these reactions.

What are some differences you have noticed between sheep and sheepdog mentalities? How can understanding more about the warrior mindset help bridge the culture gap between veterans and employers?


The Author:  Jean South is a Marine spouse, daughter of two Army veterans, and former FBI Special Agent. During her career she has had the honor of working alongside our nation’s warriors. As the President and CEO of Your Next MOS, Jean gives companies a competitive advantage to compete for veteran talent by helping bridge the culture gap between military candidates and company recruiters.  She also serves as the Veteran Outreach Director for Bunker Labs Philadelphia connecting with veterans and Veteran Service Organizations in the Philadelphia metro region to provide entrepreneurship opportunities to veterans and their spouses.

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