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Leading Lions: 9 Principles On Building And Managing Teams Of Superstars

Mihail Stefanov

Misho Stefanov is a leading Bulgarian communications advisor, trainer and speaker. He consults and trains leaders from companies such as VMware, Lidl, Heineken, Telus, Overgas, Coca-Cola, etc. on effective public and leadership communication. 

Attracting and leading superstars – isn’t that every headhunter’s ultimate goal and every leader’s dream? Confident, professional, creative, energetic, effective people – we all want them in our teams. Because, to paraphrase David Ogilvy’s famous thought*, nobody wants to lead a company of mice – we all want to lead companies full of lions.   

But how do you attract lions to your team? How do you keep them in the long run? How do you survive mentally (and sometimes even physically) leading a group of strong and independent high-achievers?

And probably the biggest question of them all – how do you make lions follow you?

There are very few people in the world who can answer that question better than Mr. Kevin Richardson, known around the world as the Lion Whisperer. Mr. Richardson has dedicated his life to saving lions and providing them with high quality of life at his Wildlife Sanctuary near Johannesburg, South Africa. And even if the name does not ring any bells at first, you have most probably seen a video of him leading a pride of fully grown lions in the South African bush, and sharing a unique relationship with them. 

When I first decided to research Mr. Richardson’s work from the perspective of leadership development, I never suspected what an insightful journey awaited me. His unique leadership approach is based on a combination of love, strength and authenticity that I found truly inspiring.

So here are the 9 leadership principles that I believe underlie Mr. Richardson’s success with real lions, and that can help any leader who wants to create and lead a team of ‘lions’.   

Principle 1: Not all leaders are fit to lead lions

“I don’t think many people have it in their gut to do interactions with lions. It definitely gets a certain personality type to get jumped on by a lion – you got to be physically tough, you gotta be mentally tough”

Leading lions requires paying a price that can seem daunting for many leaders. Strong and active people require high levels of energy, so leading them is not for the passive types of managers. They also place their leaders in a state of constant challenge, so please, all managers who are after the quiet life or love their status quo, stay away! 

Placing a dynamic and independent person in a team lead by a hesitant or insecure manager is a recipe for disaster. One of the leaders I trained about a year ago shared how frustrated she was with her boss who avoided giving specific answers to her questions, and got really defensive when she wanted to initiate even small changes. This made her feel completely shut off and powerless, and ‘lions’ hate that feeling – it completely demotivates them. So I was not surprised to hear that she intends to leave the team if things don’t change.

Principle 2: You gotta love lions

“These lions, they never cease to amaze me”

Many leaders say they want in their teams strong people who think differently. But then behave in exactly the opposite way – every time someone in their team confronts them or shares a different opinion, they feel threatened and get defensive. Loving ‘lions’ is possible only when a leader is truly confident – meaning that one knows, accepts and admits their limitations. Only then can a leader be free to love, enjoy and be amazed by the strengths of others. And that’s the only attitude that attracts real ‘lions’. 

The first time I experienced such an attitude was when I met the only long-time mentor I’ve ever had. He was more talented, more experienced, wiser, deeper and better than me at mostly everything. But he sincerely enjoyed spending time with me, always pointed out my strengths and regularly went on saying: “You have so much more potential than I used to have when I was your age. You will be so much greater and will go so much further than I ever will.” And today, almost 15 years later, I realize that only love like this has the power to transform ordinary people into lions. 

Principle 3: Your main task: take good care of your ‘lions’

“I made it my mission to enrich the lions’ lives and to give them a quality of life… It’s a life-time commitment.”

Leaders’ genuine love for those they lead always results in a desire to serve them. That’s why the most successful leaders make it their life’s mission to ensure the success and well-being of the people they lead. This idea frustrates many managers who focus primarily on the bottom line – isn’t profit the main goal of any business? Well, even if it is, how much profit are you going to make with an insecure and unsuccessful team? Making sure people operate in a healthy, nurturing, supporting and positively challenging environment is the main thing a leader needs to focus on – once they become grown ‘lions’, they will take care of business goals themselves.

Several years ago, during a workshop on leadership communication, I asked a team of managers at an IT company who was the best leader they had ever met. One person expressed such genuine love and respect for his direct supervisor that I had to ask what made him so special. It turned out he had been hired by that same leader but in a different company. “He was the only good thing in that company – he was always there for me, mentored me, helped me grow, covered my mistakes”, the person shared with me. “So when I learned he was going to leave to come here, I immediately resigned and followed him.” 

Principle 4: Forget the stick 

“There was no stick to discipline the lions”

I consulted a smaller, privately-owned company once. The CEO (and owner) believed in strict control – he communicated with orders (literally, he would distribute documents titled ORDER), used to fine people for being late and rewarded staff based on compliance instead of achievement. 

As absurd as it sounds, one year a top salesperson (who had won his company 12 strategic clients and had almost tripled his personal target for that same year) got a smaller annual bonus than the lady who cleaned the office. The reason: Not being a morning person, that salesperson used to arrive later in the office and fines had been piling up throughout the year. The result: As soon as the salesperson discovered that, he cleaned his desk and left immediately, without giving any notice.

Traditional leadership strategies based on fear or positional power fail miserably when applied to real ‘lions’. The reason is simple – they are hard to scare and easy to annoy. So the stick might work once or twice – and then they will either leave with their heads held high, or turn around and go for the jugular. You lead ‘lions’ not through fear of punishment but by building a relationship of mutual trust.  

Principle 5: Invest in trusting relationships

“A lion is not a possession; it’s a sentient being, so you must pay attention and develop your bond like with any relationship… They are characters and that’s what I wanted to get to know – spend time to understand each of them well.” 

The only way to lead talented, confident and independent people is to put in the hard work, commitment, perseverance and crazy amounts of patience required to build deep trusting relationships. With each and every one of them. The minor detail – all mice are the same, but every ‘lion’ is different. And it takes an extra amount of time and effort to build a deep bond with each one individually so that you can lead them all as a group in the end.

A leader I know well has an art director on his team – one of the smartest and most dedicated designers I have ever met in my career. Being a true ‘lion’, she possesses an amazing combination of design talent, deep understanding of business, and high work ethics; she approaches problems proactively, makes bold and independent decisions, and is deeply confident and never intimidated by negative feedback. When I asked him one day how he found her, he shook his head and corrected me: “I didn’t find her. I made her. I saw her potential when she was still a student, I started mentoring her, then started giving her small pro bono tasks and teaching her to think, then hired her, patiently paid the price for her mistakes, gave her honest feedback and bigger responsibilities, and absolutely enjoyed the experience of seeing her grow into the amazing professional she now is”. 

Principle 6: Submit to the lion to submit the lion

I just remember thinking: They’ve got serious power”

If a leader has real ‘lions’ on his or her team, then this leader is surrounded by true power. That’s why they need to add to their love a deep sense of respect. It should be felt in every interaction with their ‘lions’ – never belittle or underestimate them, always communicate confidence in their strength and abilities. The only way to submit a lion is to first submit to the lion.

I will never forget this one management training in a fintech company – as I was explaining a concept, one of the ladies said “There is a better way to put this”, grabbed my marker and started drawing and explaining what she thought I was about to explain to the rest of the group. Everybody was silent and waited for my reaction. And to be honest, I was really tempted to obey my rising fear of losing authority and fight back (“I am the expert in the room” type of reaction). 

Challenging a lion to a fight, however, always ends in conflict (and blood) – and I knew doing it would have been the real end of my authority. So instead I sat down, listened and took notes of what the lady said. It turned out she had little idea of where I was going – and eventually, when she failed a practical exercise later in the day, this became clear for everybody. And she was completely ‘submitted’ – listened carefully and participated respectfully till the end of the training. 

Principle 7: Show no fear

“You have to have a calm disposition around lions. Never show fear or anxiety, even when they bite harder… You’ve got to just make them realise you are not afraid”

‘Lions’ are not kittens – and every leader must be prepared that even when they play, they might bite. When leading ‘lions’, it’s a fragile balance that one needs to keep – they can jump on you anytime with different opinions, strong words and high emotions. But even when they start playing rough, not getting nervous or panicking is the key to managing potential conflict. Demonstrating calm confidence and at the same time zero tolerance for rudeness is the fastest way to calm them down – and a crucial component of any leader’s survival.

As the diverse group of leaders in a multinational company were entering the training room for a workshop I led for them, I noticed that one guy did not sit around the meeting table but chose a higher bar stool at the side. From this ’higher’ position, as soon as I began my introductions, he started demonstrating really dominant behavior, interrupting me and making silly jokes. Everybody else in the room seemed a bit embarrassed, but I knew what this was: there was a ‘lion’ that was testing me. 

If I showed fear or weakness, I was ‘dead’ – he was going to take control over the whole meeting. So I laughed at several of his jokes (even though out of place, some of them were actually good), threw several jokes back at him in the same tone of voice, and then asked smilingly but firmly if he had anything else of value that he wanted to add to the discussion. He laughed, then shook his head, listened carefully and in the first coffee break left his higher position and joined the rest of his colleagues around the table. 

Principle 8: Let them lead

“The lions generally want to lead – they do not want to be behind things, they want to be in front of things” 

This is probably the hardest principle to apply. But interestingly, it is not that counterintuitive as it may sound at first. If you have surrounded yourself with true ‘lions’ – confident, intelligent, capable, loyal people, with whom you have a trusting relationship, letting them lead part of your journey together should not bring any major risks.  

Actually, providing ‘lions’ with some independence and control over their domain is the only way to keep them for the long run. 

I still remember how a couple of years ago a manager called me enthusiastically to tell me that she had found an amazing, active, strong lady to join her team. Knowing that this manager preferred to keep most of the things under her personal control, I gently asked if this active and independent person is the best fit for her team. “Oh, yes,” she said, “I am tired of working with insecure people, I am so glad that change is coming, I hope this person will encourage change in the whole team”.

I was not in a position to tell her that the only reason her people were insecure was her tendency to micromanage them. But I was not surprised when several short weeks later she called me really frustrated and complained that the new person insisted on doing things her own way, was too “independent”, and was ruining the discipline in the whole team. Micromanagers do not do well with lions. 

Principle 9: Become your ‘lions’ champion

“I think my mom does not actually understand what I do. The same goes for most of my friends and family – they have no idea what it entails.” 

Most leaders are truly scared of ‘lions’ – they see confident and independent people as a real threat to their authority and status. That’s why do not expect many of your friends to understand your love for ‘lions’. Or the price you are paying to build relationships and take care of them. Regardless, always stand up for your ‘lions’, cover their backs, become their ambassador and champion. And to all questioning looks and occasional complaints simply reply with Mr. Richardson’s famous words: 

“I’ve weighed the pros and I’ve weighed the cons, and the pros far outweigh the cons… For the lion, this feared predator, this man-eater, is capable of so much love”.

___

* David Ogilvy famously wrote: “If each of us hires people who are smaller than we are, we shall become a company of dwarfs. But if each of us hires people who are bigger than we are, we shall become a company of giants”.

 

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