Knowledge Needs a Nudge

Excerpt from my book, Leaders, Lions and the Hunt for Team Excellence


“In South Africa’s Khandwa Private Game Reserve,” my host’s voice came from behind me, startling me. “I once observed a lioness come upon a red hartebeest calf that had been separated from its herd and had come out of hiding at the wrong moment.”


I turned to find him entering the room carrying a large tray.


He continued, “The lioness was on the calf instantly but, rather than killing the calf, it merely subdued the animal until her six-month-old cubs joined her. The lioness demonstrated how to bring it down but was careful not to injure the hartebeest too seriously so that it could be repeatedly released as practice for the young cubs.”


“That had to be hard to watch,” I said, helping guide the tray to the coffee table. “I mean, the calf never stood a chance.” “It was difficult at first, but then you realize that this is nature at work, prey and predator, a lioness teaching her cubs how to survive,” Neil said. He began pouring two cups of tea.


Neil explained that the scene he had observed offered a rare glimpse into lion cub training, and it reinforced that real-world skills require real-world experience. A lioness needs her cubs to gain skills quickly. The savanna is an unforgiving home.


“Nature does not suffer the fool,” Neil said with emphasis.


He said that to thrive in such challenging circumstances means that lions must not only acquire key skills but also master them.


As adolescents, lions’ mock fighting is the means for building strength and establishing a hierarchy of leadership. Young lions that accompany the pride on a hunt observe, from a distance, the more skilled members execute an attack.


He explained that adult lions learn from their mistakes. Lions will change roles in subsequent hunts based on injury, fatigue or a change in leadership stature. They alter their tactics based on the environment – preferring to stalk in the tall grass when the rain is plentiful but moving to an ambush tactic at a waterhole in times of drought. It is this accumulation of meaningful skills – talents, tactics and teamwork – that give the lion the tools to dominate its environment.


“I’m sure you’re asking yourself an obvious question: how does this translate to the business world?”


Once again, my coach was reading my mind.


“Connor, as aspiring leaders, we have to put ourselves in situations that teach valuable skills – even if we don’t recognize the learning that is occurring at that time. We have to observe and engage actual challenges, starting modestly perhaps, but building rapidly toward mastery.”

I paused for moment to gather my thoughts. I was fascinated by his work and knowledge but hadn’t yet connected all the dots.


“I’m amazed at the depth of your understanding of animal behavior, and I think I know how this Instinct applies to me.” I proceeded with a note of hesitation. “It’s about education, isn’t it?”


“Yes … and no,” Neil added coyly. “It’s not just about acquiring knowledge, which is certainly important. But learning is more than that.”


I saw his facial expression change and become more serious.


“Learning is as much attitude as aptitude,” he said. “It’s only useful when it’s applied.”

Neil rolled right into an explanation of a concept in physics called ‘potential energy.’ He said potential energy is when something is in position to exert a force but is static at the moment. It does not release that energy until it is acted upon.


“For example, a boulder resting on the edge of a cliff has a lot of potential energy, but it doesn’t release that energy until something pushes it off the edge,” he explained.


He was in full mentor mode now and I tried to keep pace.


“I never was very good at physics,” I smiled.


“Learning prepares us to act but it doesn’t compel us to act,” Neil continued. “Knowledge is a start, but it needs a nudge to be useful.” He said to think of education as potential energy for what we call confidence – it is in position to exert force in our life but not until our attitude pushes it.”

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