The Buffalo Theory … and the courage of entrepreneurs

The dance of the lion and the buffalo

Every day across the savannah of the Serengeti, lions hunt herds of buffalo. It’s their job. They are good at it.But they don’t hunt just any buffalo. No. Lions are smart. They hunt the slower, younger, weaker buffalo trailing behind the herd — the ‘easy’ prey. For some of us this may seem callous, but for the lion it makes perfect sense as it minimises energy expulsion, reduces the chance of serious injury, and a meal is likely. Smart hunting machines those lions.

For the Buffalo however, the lions hunting strategy also has a benefit.

A herd’s strength comes largely from its speed.The faster a herd can move, the better its chances of survival. But here’s the catch: The herd’s speed is dictated not only by the lead buffalo, but also by that scraggly laggard at the back of the pack. In effect, the herd can only move as fast as its slowest buffalo. So as the lion picks off a buffalo at the rear of the herd, the herd becomes stronger.

It is a symbiotic relationship — the Yin and Yang — intertwined fates and all that stuff. The front of the herd is the Buffalo’s responsibility. The lion looks after the rear.

Strange things happen in Irish bars

I was first introduced to the Buffalo Theory around 5 years ago in a dark Irish bar at 1 am on a Sunday morning. It was at the trailing end of a ‘big night’ out with the boys. My mate told me — as I clutched at my water — that by continuing to drink beer I would actually be killing off the slower, dumber brain cells, hence making me smarter. “It’s the Buffalo Theory” he proclaimed, leaning against the table anchored only by the three quarter full pint filling the space between his hands.

Sounds feasible” I thought enthusiastically, so I bought another pint.

I have since concluded that my mate was telling a furfie. If there were in fact any real-world correlation between alcohol consumption and IQ, a) there would be more genius level alcoholics, and b) I would have become smarter over the past 20 years.

So clearly the Buffalo Theory’s application to alcohol consumption may be a stretch. However its application in a business context is quite interesting.

The entrepreneur, the lion

Entrepreneurs need to be both buffalo, and lion. As head buffalo, the entrepreneur is responsible for the herd, looking for opportunities, steering the herd in the right direction, driving the herd forward. In the spirit of W. Edwards Deming, lead buffalo look for ways to improve, streamline, and enhance all aspects of their business.

What being a lion is about is being a ruthless killing machine, looking for targets that are holding your business back without emotion or ego. You’re king of the savannah, and you’re hungry. In fact your very survival may depend on your next kill.

The moment I became a lion

At 26 I started a brand consulting business as a way to fund my startup interests. Business was good, I had the lifestyle, the girl, the house, the car. But 10 years in and I still didn’t have the startup. Despite my best intentions, the path I was on was not the entrepreneurial path, and I was oh so close to being stuck there for life.

I was heading inland to the desert, when I was actually aiming for the middle of the Pacific Ocean.

It’s not that I didn’t see I was on the wrong path. I knew it. But I (believed) I had too much invested to just give up. I wanted the lifestyle, AND I wanted to be a startup entrepreneur.

I remeber the moment all that changed. It was around 3am, New Years day 2009, as I sat on a balcony by myself, staring at the ocean, other guests having gone to bed, and I just cried. I cound’t bear to spend another year not achieving anything. Another year being a nobody. Another year not living the dream I had for myself as a kid. I made a lions decision that night that I would step onto the entrepreneurial path, and never ever return.

I sold everything. My girlfriend left. I lost friends. Everything that propped up my ego was suddenly gone from under me. And I went to being basically homeless and living out of a suitcase. But … I had free’d myself from the lifestyle that was my shackle. And that was incredibly liberating. For the first time since my teens I was square with the world, and could finally dream big again.

My ‘lions’ decision was to…

…abandon the life I had been making for myself for the past 15 years.

Lion decisions in history

Steve Jobs made a famous lions decision that saved Apple. When he returned to Apple in 1998, the company was moments away from bankruptcy. His lion decision …

…cull the number of products from 350 to just 10.

Henry Ford also made a lions decision when he was having staff and quality production issues in his plant. His lions decision…

…double the wage of every worker in the factory.

Robert R. Taylor, the inventor of liquid soap, made a lions decision when, after inventing SoftSoap at his small company, he realised IF his idea caught on he could not possibly hope to compete against giants like Johnson & Johnson.His lions decision…

…to mortgage his small company for every single penny, and buy100 million soap pump bottles from the only two US manufacturers, tying up supply for 12 months.


You may say a lions decision is really just a courageous decision. And you’re right. After all, what does the lion spirit stand for? Courage.

If you have made a lions decision, or you can recall a story of a lions decision, why not share it and give inspiration to those who need the courage to make one.

Now, anyone else feel like Buffalo wings and beer?

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