Think like a lion, not a gazelle

Where do your emotions go when you watch a pride of lions stalking a herd of gazelle? Who do you champion? Would you side with the helpless animal that was separated from the herd and hopelessly fending off the predators? Or would you root for the lion, stealthily moving across the African savanna, a highly-skilled opportunist who understands the importance of timing, decisiveness and survival?

Whenever I engage an audience in this exercise, the overwhelming majority feel for the gazelle. Innocent, terrified and out maneuvered, most people identify with the fate of the victim. Even though they understand the underlying reality that governs the survival of the fittest, their emotions judge harshly. Seldom do participants identify with the prowess of the lion—the king of beasts—a highly-trained ‘entrepreneur’ whose instincts and versatility helps keep the balance on the African plains.

For the gazelle and similar grazing animals, the herd mentality shapes their daily lifestyle. There is little training required (or provided) for new born calves to adopt (and conform) to the herd’s predictable behavior. It is fairly basic: head down, munch the grasses, move on to greener pastures. There is, of course, a social structure which ensures control and conformity—the herd mentality—but little room for personal initiative to step out of the comfort zone. For survival, they stick together knowing there is relative safety in numbers.

Does this sounds rather similar to the lifestyle which is promoted in our culture. From primary school onward we are educated to accept the general consensus that, “this is the way our herd operates. Keep your head down and conform… and woe unto you if you step outside of the formatting”. We quickly learn to obey the rules and take on the employee mentality: do as we say and think within the box. Our ‘herd mentality’ is obviously much more sophisticated than grazing animals but very predictable nevertheless.

What a contrast to the world of the lion. Lion cubs are born blind. They spend the first two years learning how to hunt with the group and all the social rules of living within the pride. Unlike their prey, lions are completely dependent on their training and develop the necessary skill to survive. Each kill is a culmination of intense focus: stalking the herd, identifying the target, timing the charge and delivering the decisive deadly blow.

The purpose of the exercise is not to judge which animal is better, which is smarter, or whether it is right or wrong, but to illustrate that each animal plays a role which carries with it a specific mode of thinking and behavior. To survive and maintain the balance, both the predator and the prey are intimately linked. But the lion and the gazelle think and behave quite differently.

Entrepreneurs are the lions within our economic framework. They drive the wheels of innovation and progress. Entrepreneurs, whether they are loners, owners or CEO’s, are wired to think and behave differently. It is their essential nature. Some are fortunate to be raised in an entrepreneurial environment. Most are trapped in a herd mentality until a spark of inspiration motivates them to question the acceptable pattern. Unfortunately, it takes more than just wanting to be an entrepreneur. To be one, you have to think like one.

Our educational system denies entrepreneurial thinking. It teaches herd behavior and how best to survive within its structure. Some aspire to lead their following to greener pastures, to be more efficient and produce better results. Ultimately, their intent is to serve the survival of the herd (the company, the corporation, the organization, etc.). But no matter how aspiring the goal, it is still framed in the context of thinking like a gazelle.

Our economy is under huge pressure from an overdose of herd thinking. To restore balance in the current marketplace, owners and managers need to think like a lion. And to think like a lion you first have to stop thinking like a gazelle; that well-entrenched mindset that encourages conformity and behavior as we’ve always done. When you assume the role of the lion—thinking like an entrepreneur—your perspective changes dramatically. Instead of fearing change and hunkering down, you begin to identify opportunities and innovative ways to capture the momentum.

It’s easy to let our emotions be lured down with the victim. It takes courage to connect with the stealth of the lion. When you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change.