You Can Be the Lion or the Lamb. Or a 3rd Choice…

February 11, 2013

(Reposted and updated from my Forbes.com column)

The best business strategy–the best personal philosophy–might not be the most obvious choice…

Late night dinner in one of the best restaurants in the best hotel in Las Vegas. Chef’s tasting menu of course. A chance encounter with a young but obviously very wealthy man. He leaned over his Cabernet and lowered his voice. He was about to share the secret to his success.

“In the jungle of life, there are lions and lambs.” He quickly glanced around the room and then leaned in even closer, “I choose to be the lion, and we all know what happens to the lambs.”

The lion or the lamb?

There is a third choice.

I’ve heard this jungle metaphor many times, always from people who are very successful in their career. Usually from men. Usually as an explanation of their hard charging lives and aggressive styles. They have an “alpha dog” personality, and adopt alpha dog (or Lion) strategies.

But there is a third choice.

The lion versus lamb metaphor shows the limits of western duality. This or that. Black or white. Positive or negative. Passive or submissive. Leader or follower. Risky or safe. Win or lose.

But there is a third choice.

If business (or life) is a jungle filled with lions and lambs, your best choice is to be neither the lion nor the lamb, but rather, be the jungle.

I don’t mean this in a fuzzy philosophical way. I mean think about how to win regardless of the players, the short-term trends, or winners-versus-losers.

How can you become part of the system? How can you support all the players? How can you embed your product or service into the workflow of everyone else playing the game?

Being the jungle means:

  • You aren’t the prospector searching for a gold mine, you are the one selling supplies to all the miners
  • You aren’t trying to get rich quick as an indie author, you are selling editing and publicity services to all the indie authors
  • You aren’t the city newspaper fighting for subscribers, you are the AP or Reuters feeding stories to all the papers
  • You aren’t the car company, you supply the little plastic doohickies that all the car companies use inside their cars
  • You don’t bring your inventions to market yourself, you license them to others who are fighting in the market
  • You don’t fight the long startup odds in Silicon Valley, you make a fortune in commercial real estate serving the startups

This applies for leadership and talent models too. We should spend less time worrying about individual players (“Will they succeed or fail? Lion or lamb?”), and more time crafting the support system.

  • Not “Will Jane succeed as a sales rep?” Rather, “How can we create a sales system that is immune to the success or failure of a single individual.”
  • Not “Will Dana work out in her new management role?” Rather, “How can we create a culture of goals, metrics and feedback—the jungle, the environment—so that we succeed regardless of the talents of individual managers.”
  • Not “Is Lori a good enough software engineer to hit our deadline?” Rather, “What is the right system of paired-programming and agile development process that will make us immune to the flaws of individual engineers.”

You can be successful as a lion. No doubt.

Yet the most certain, efficient and sustainable success comes from being neither the lion, nor the lamb, but rather the jungle.

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Kevin Kruse is a NY Times bestselling author and keynote speaker. Get more success and tips from his newsletter at kevinkruse.com and check out keynote video clips. His new book, Employee Engagement 2.0, teaches managers how to turn apathetic groups into emotionally committed teams.



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