Most kindergartners learn their shapes, numbers and alphabet. But Tsehaywota Taddesse, Compassion Ethiopia Country Director, had a different experience in rural Ethiopia:
“I attended my kindergarten in a meadow, learning the languages of the sheep and cows.”
Tsehaywota didn’t attend formal school until the age of 10 – but that doesn’t mean his younger years weren’t filled with learning. In rural Ethiopia, where he was born and raised, he spent much of his childhood shepherding sheep and cattle – a trade not commonly known in the Western world, but one that equipped him for a future role in management.
Tsehaywota explains, “Becoming a shepherd is a big milestone for a child [in Ethiopia]; it means the child is counted trustworthy over the most precious possession of his family.” He adds, “As I look back, my biggest motivation as a shepherd was the level of trust people had in me. I was fully trusted not only by my family members but also by the people in the village.”
In Tsehaywota’s village, children as young as 4 were selected to be shepherds. For three years, from ages 7 to 10, Tsehaywota spent the majority of his time out in the fields with the family herd. This responsibility brought him favor. “People had confidence in me that overshadowed my failures,” Tsehaywota says. “Their trust stretched me to become the best I could be.”
Tsehaywota’s life and leadership are marked by trust. It was during his humble childhood where some of his great leadership lessons began to form. They are lessons he carries with him today and uses in his role at Compassion. Tsehaywota shares three major lessons he’s learned through shepherding and leading:
“Trust is among the definitive calls of leadership. When I was a shepherd, it was critical to ensure the safety of the sheep and cattle under my charge. I feel that same way now about my staff members. Trust brings out the best in people and increases their capacity to become more of who God created them to be.”
While tending the flocks, Tsehaywota kept watch over the sheep and cattle, but also gave them freedom to roam in order to find food and therefore grow. The same is true in Tsehaywota’s leadership style. “Leadership is a commitment to ensuring freedom within a secure zone. Freedom allows people to grow into their gifts and potential for a cause greater than themselves.”
This is a phrase Tsehaywota coined after experiencing it at an early age. He explains: “Shepherding is a responsibility that interlinks influencing and being influenced. In a similar way, leadership is not only going in front, it is also taking joy to be in the middle or follow from the back if need be.” This type of humility has earned Tsehaywota the trust and respect of his staff and peers.
Tsehaywota joined Compassion International in 1998 and for 10 years served in various capacities. In 2008, he began leading the Compassion Ethiopia Office as Country Director. At that time, Compassion ministered to 63,283 children. Nine years later, thriving under Tsehaywota’s leadership, Compassion Ethiopia now serves 108,114 children.
Though Tsehaywota’s formal education didn’t begin until he was 10, the self-learner didn’t allow his late start in academics to stop him from pursuing his education. He eventually learned to read and write through a national literacy program before going on to receive a Bachelor of Science in geology from Addis Ababa University.
He then added a Master of Arts in child development from Daystar University, Nairobi. He is now working on his doctorate from Oxford Centre for Mission Studies in the United Kingdom with his research centering on holistic development of children in poverty context.
From trusted shepherd who managed livestock in a small village to a respected authority who oversees a corporate office that serves more than 100,000 children in need, Tsehaywota has come a long way from his humble beginnings. But he has remained true to the lessons of the meadow. Like young David described in Psalm 78:72, Tsehaywota shepherds with integrity of heart and skillful hands, leading well those God has put in his charge.