“Running faster than a Lion”


So, this happened …

Two people are hiking through the African bush, when suddenly they hear a noise behind them. They turn around, and to their horror they see a Lion racing towards them.

The one hiker suddenly reaches into his bag, pulls out a pair of running shoes, and starts putting them on as quickly as possible.

“You’re never going to run faster than a lion, even with running shoes on!” the other says with surprise.

“No,” the first one agrees. “But all I need is to out-run you.”

Simple Definition

Running fast than a lion: In the bush, as long as you can out-run the person you’re with, you don’t need to be able to run faster than a lion. So too in the real world, it might be less about solving a problem absolutely, and more about solving it better than your competitors.

Summarizing what it means

The joke about the hikers is a great story, a classic. I’ve told it many times, always in order to make the point that – in a sense – your competition isn’t who you think it is.

You don’t need to compete with perfection. It’s also not about what is reasonable or fair, nor about what things used to be like. Instead, we have to remember that we are primarily in competition with whatever is currently being done by those around us.

A simple example makes this clear: It doesn’t matter whether you think it’s fair to work 12 hours every day or not. If the people around you are working 12 hour days, then that’s the standard against which you will be judged.

Discussing what it means

There are, of course, many different angles from which this lesson can be seen. What became obvious to me when drafting this chapter, was that the concept itself isn’t difficult to understand, and so doesn’t need to be analyzed deeply.

Instead, I came to see that that this “Running faster than a lion” #hashtag-story presents itself in the real world in such a wide range of variations, that the real value is best conveyed to you by providing a lot of examples.

The more you see the many ways this could be showing up in your life, the easier it will be to notice (and flag!) when it actually does. That allows you to then adjust your focus to deal with your real competition.

This over-rides fairness

It doesn’t matter how qualified you are for the job, if someone else can do it better (or if someone can do the same job but cheaper), then that is what you’re up against.

It doesn’t make a difference if you are fundamentally a better singer than someone else, if they also have a powerful on-stage or on-screen presence that you don’t, then this will leave you behind them in getting singing contracts and booking gigs.

Don’t think about whether your current fitness regime (exercise & diet) is better than anyone else in your family, don’t keep telling yourself that “at least it’s more than I was doing a year ago”. If it’s not enough relative to your goals, then that is what you’re competing against.

If you’re a consultant, and your competition is in the habit of producing extensive documentation with all of their submissions, even if most of it is actually superfluous to the client’s needs, then it doesn’t make a difference whether you think they’re wasting the client’s time with that material. Even if the client doesn’t read all that information, the output of the competing consultant in comparison to yours’ makes your effort look weak. That’s what you’re up against.

When Toyota launched their Prius in 1997, it was the first mass-produced energy-efficient hybrid vehicle – and all they were competing with was “conventional” cars. So even as a hybrid, they were still very impressive. But (for example) once Tesla came on the scene as a fully electric car, suddenly any new player in the automobile industry knew that if they were to come in with a hybrid option, it would be perceived as sub-standard. Because Tesla.

And this was exactly how a company like Netflix was able to break into their market … all those cable TV stations required you to buy a whole range of channels (like sports and children’s stuff that you didn’t want) just to get the movie package. It didn’t matter than the cable companies thought they were offering great value for money. If the public preferred a movie-only on-demand option, and Netflix offered it, then that instantly became the benchmark, and the basis for competition moved forwards.

If you’re going into politics, and you’re basically being elected on the strength of what you promise (which is so often the case), then it really doesn’t matter if every other politician that you’re competing with is actually lying about what they can achieve. It doesn’t matter if you’re the only honest one out there. If the truth pales in comparison to the lies that are being spouted, the odds of your being elected are lower. Your honest promises are weak compared to the over-promises and lies. You’re competing against the lies, and I’m sorry that it’s not fair.

This creates opportunities

In the same way that the hiker didn’t have to be able to out-run a lion, he could still ‘win’ (i.e. not die) while running away at a speed substantially less than that of a lion. Below are some more examples of how you can take advantage of this shortcut.

After all, that’s the point of a Minimum Viable Product (MVP) for new innovations – it’s better to have something out there that starts creating traction, even if it isn’t the perfect solution.

I grew up in Johannesburg, South Africa. At some point in the 1990s, crime got completely out of control, until it reached the point where many people had barb wire on the walls around their property. Of course, any semi-competent thief would have little difficulty bypassing some barb wire along a wall – but the logic was less about making your place crime-free (which was impossible) and more about making your place a little harder to break into than the house next door. It was a deterrent relative to your neighbourhood, rather than preventative relative to some absolute state of security.

My friend, Marley, was recently applying for an internal job and asked me whether he should include a cover letter, or just send his CV, given it’s only an internal transfer. I couldn’t understand the question – why wouldn’t he include a cover letter? He told me that HR said that apparently people never bother, when applying for other roles within the company. My response was that if he wanted to out-run the people around him, he should at least “put on running shoes”. In other words, if he does exactly what the others are doing, he will come across the same as all the others. If he wants to differentiate himself, he should definitely be the one who does submit a cover letter with his CV. Marley had gotten confused between being just like his competition, and actually trying to beat his competition.

When even your competitors aren’t your competition!

There are three different types of examples of this.


If someone is definitely going out to eat lunch, then in order to get her business, your restaurant is competing with all the other restaurants in the area. That’s easy. But what if she’s indifferent as to whether she eats out, whether she skips lunch today, or whether she goes back home to make herself a salad.

In this case, your restaurant is actually competing against indifference by the client! It’s not that they will buy something but haven’t decided from whom, it’s that they might not buy anything at all. Think about how different your competition landscape is, if that is the case.

Internal politics

Unfortunately, in delivering products or services to clients, you’ll sometimes find that you’re not competing with your traditional competitors, but instead with your own internal politics! It’s not always about being able to achieve what other market players are doing, but about trying to get past internal hurdles that are causing even tighter blocks. Whether it’s politics where someone is trying to prevent you delivering best value, or conservative management with limited risk appetite or tolerance for innovation, sometimes this is what you’re fighting against, long before you get to compete with the best of what is already out there.


I understand that there are a lot of things you want to achieve, and it’s wonderful that you have such a long to-do list, but the Pareto Principle holds true: most of your success is going to come from a small number of projects.

So it doesn’t matter if it’s ‘reasonable’ to spend half a day a week dealing with small matters. The reality is that your time which is being allocated to these less important tasks is in competition with a half-day dedicated to dealing with big-ticket items, with the potential to significantly grow your business. That’s how competition for your limited time actually plays out.

Eliminating incompetent competitors

This section is a little technical, so here’s a ‘lion’ analogy to help you understand what’s going on, before you climb into the details:

In the context of the lion story, you might say that if the one hiker were really slow in running, then the lion might think he was ill and unsafe to eat. Therefore the lion would rather opt to chase the one in running shoes, because he looks healthier. (Apparently even lions make healthy easting choices :) So the running hiker would actually benefit by helping the other one to at least run fast enough to look like a genuine option for the lion. And only then could the one in running shoes sprint off :)

This is how it plays out in the corporate world …

I worked for a reinsurer for over twenty years (in several countries, in a number of roles). A reinsurer – if you aren’t aware – is basically a company that insures the insurance companies. Knowledge about calculating risk capital, and charging the right risk cost for any risk that they took on, was an essential part of their expertise, and thus a core competitive advantage.

The problem, they realized, is that they were competing on occasions against less competent reinsurers, companies who didn’t know nearly as much about risk capital and costs as they did. So sometimes these companies would be significantly undercharging for the risks they were taking on, simply because they didn’t know better.

And as we’ve seen many times above, it didn’t matter if my employer was charging the “right” premium for their risk transfer. The reality is they were having to compete against companies who were mistakenly undercharging with the “wrong” premium. And it’s weak comfort to tell yourself it’s OK because one day that other company will make losses, when right now you have a budget to hit, and you’re losing deals to offers which are uneconomic. Fair or not fair, that was the comparison the buyers were making, and it was costing the competent reinsurers profitable business.

I remember coming across a fantastic expression around that time: “There’s one thing worse than competing against a competent competitor, and that’s competing against an incompetent one.”

And so they started making a lot of their knowledge about risk and capital available to the market, including to all their competitors. And while they were actually reducing the advantage they had over their closest competitors (which wasn’t great news), they were also upgrading the knowledge of those competitors who might be completely mis-pricing risks. This would ultimately improve market dynamics, and would be a good thing for everyone in the long run.

Very smart.

Competing concepts

As you know from the #[Dog on the rusty nail], sometimes we don’t change, because it doesn’t hurt enough. And maybe you’re not focused on the real competition in your life because you don’t want to win badly enough. That’s fine, it’s your choice. But if you really want more, you have to get off that rusty nail. Work out who your competition is, and deal with it.

This “Running faster than a lion” #hashtag-story is basically telling you that you should focus on what it happening around you, and not on some arbitrary standard that may not even be achievable. There is another story called #[How to beat a ninja] which appears to take the opposite stance. That one is telling you that if you only compete with those around you, then you’re living in a bubble, and very vulnerable when you’re outside in the wider world. Actually, these two #hashtag-stories don’t contradict each other … both are just saying that you should be looking at the real competition out there, not just the ones you currently know who operate immediately around you.

Making it personal

Get out your #HashtagYourLife journals (Word file?) and start writing …

  • Think of your employer (or yourself, if you’re a freelancer): Who did you think your competition is? Now, consider who else it might be. Even if you’re convinced you’re right, force yourself to think of another company (from outside your industry). Airbnb became competition for the hotels – but how many of them realized that before it was too late?
  • What is a product or service that you might buy, but frankly just haven’t felt a strong incentive, so you haven’t. What if suppliers of that product or service weren’t so focused on competing against each other, but instead just spent a little more effort on getting you – the buyer – to be more sure about buying it, without worrying about from whom you’d buy? What could you recommend to them to say to you (even though they might not be the best or the cheapest) to get you to just buy?
  • Are you in the “dating scene” at the moment, trying to get one particular person to be more into you than they currently are? Did you think you’re competing with other people in a dating app? With other people in their workplace? Or are you competing with their limited desire to be in a relationship – any relationship – at the moment? Maybe you’re competing with their hobby or their job – and they just don’t have time for anyone right now? Work out who your real competition is, and think about what you could be doing differently?
  • Are you trying to get a new job at the moment, or win a contract, or get a grant? Until today, who did you think you were competing with? Assume you’re wrong (horrifying to consider, I know, but assume you’re wrong anyway) … assume you’re wrong and think who your real competition might be, and thus what short-cut you could take to actually get what you want.
  • Are you writing a book called #HashtagYourLife, which you’re publishing online, chapter by chapter? Did you think your competition was another author, or another blogger, or maybe another podcaster? Are you competing with a mass of people on social media who just spew out a bunch of trite truisms without going into any depth? Who else do you think your competition might be, and therefore what could you be doing better in dealing with your real competition? What should you start doing differently, starting now?

PS. Suggestions on the last one are welcome, and indeed encouraged! Please leave a comment on the blog below, or reach out to me on email or Instagram or Twitter. I would love to hear your thoughts on this.

Related stories

#[How to beat a ninja]

#[Dog on a rusty nail]

#[The average photo you DO take]

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