Between the lion and the leopard

Between the Lion and the Leopard

The right answer is almost always somewhere squarely between the lion and the leopard. There is a win for the lion and a win for the leopard if you’re courageous enough to find it there in the dangerous, uncertain middle.

“They are trapped,” my friend said from the seat next to me. We were driving through a national park in East Africa along a road that led just inside the tree line with the savanna to the west and the lush forest to the east. In front of us, paused squarely in the middle of the road, was a family of waterbuck. Majestic creatures, waterbuck. Having grown up chasing Whitetails in the South Carolina lowcountry, their resemblance always reminded me that we are more similar and connected around the world than we realize.

“You see the lion there?” My friend pointed.

Sure enough, there were two – no three – lions approaching the road from the savanna. A young waterbuck would make a good meal. 

“Yes. But why are they trapped?” I asked, not seeing why they wouldn’t run the other way – into the forest. 

“Yes, they are trapped. They should run, but they are not. They know something is over there also.”  We looked together through the acacia branches scrutinizing the forest interior on the other side of the road. 

“There,” my friend whispered. “There is the problem. Do you see it? It is the leopard.” Sure enough, there was the snake-like tail of our leopard neighbor dangling from a branch in a large, yellow acacia. 

If the waterbuck family ran for the open they would be facing the lions – rulers of the savanna. If they retreated to the woods, they would be ambushed by the real ruler of the jungle, the leopard. It was the real life instance of what we often call being “between a rock and a hard place.” 

The Boardroom Jungle

In another time and place early in my professional career, I was working for one of the most accomplished CEOs in the country – a lion of lions. They had essentially written a book on the work we were doing as consultants, but they now needed an outside force to take a meaningful hypothesis and make it a reality for thousands of physicians, tens of thousands of nurses and staff, and hundreds of ambulatory clinic sites. Along the way, they also needed about 20 clinical and academic chairs to work like they were on the same team – which seemed the case on the surface but wasn’t yielding the results to prove it. Their direct report was the CEO of the medical group and our key client – another lion – who desperately needed our work to bring clarity and resolve to the sweeping changes they had committed to. The stakes were high, and we needed to at least successfully put one steadfast stake in the ground soon. No one, especially us, could afford for it to go wrong.

It was interesting to me with much younger eyes at the time how transparent these leaders were with us behind closed doors.  Where they were generally reserved and tactful in audience with one another, they were endless fountains of perceived truth when engaged alone. Each was following a mission or “why” that they held above most all else, but their “how” was an intertwined complexity of alliances, committees, and budgets.  

The two lions – our clients – championed all of these leaders and their missions with masterful grace. They were committed to their patients and wore an exterior of thoughtful strength and endearing determination. They moved mountains, and their people loved them. But make no mistake – they were in charge.

Enter the leopard.

During our months-long assessment, we conducted seemingly countless interviews and observations.  Of note, we engaged each clinical department chair in their own unique, personal habitat.  One lived in their office at the edge of campus, one off campus, one at the center of campus, one under the campus, one never used their office, and a few would only meet over dinner in corners with low light and white noise.

One chair, however, was truly remarkable.  I gathered this because I’d heard it from nearly everyone we interviewed before him.  He was a renowned clinician, researcher and educator. He had trained nearly everyone walking the halls with a stethoscope around their necks up and down the entire region for decades. He worked tirelessly while others slept – building things, connecting things, and moving things around.

I learned from this leader how the hospital was built, how it worked, and how often the lions didn’t get to see what was beyond the board rooms and presentations. The leopard was working tirelessly in every lab, exam room, and corner restaurant table to continue a legacy that began long before the lions got there and would continue long after they moved on to the next horizon, or so it would seem. He cared so deeply for his patients, for his students, his spreadsheets, and his ego. Whether the lions knew or not – the leopard was really in charge.

I left that room with a book full of notes and head spinning with ideas. Who were we serving here? One side wanted success to happen one way, and the other side wanted a very different picture. It seemed they genuinely shared the same why, but it was covered in the deepest briar patch of politics and culture. There was unquestionably a territorial war happening all around us, and we were finding ourselves in the middle. Highly valued problem-solvers designing between a rock and a hard place, or the lion and the leopard.

In a fateful boardroom meeting weeks later were around 20 or so department chairs, two CEOs, a dean, 3-5 vice presidents of important things that everyone and no one owned, and some blessed administrative project managers. We had 90 minutes in this arena to share our findings in compelling order and lead the group to clear decisions. As the newer, young buck on the consulting team, I had the added responsibility of creating nearly every slide in the presentation for this meeting. Of course it leveraged the collective power and insight of our team, had been debated and scrutinized, and then proofed and proofed again. But I felt the universal weight of each word, icon, and blank space from start to finish as it was presented.

Each slide went by with relative calm and acceptance. Our consulting finance partner, our revenue cycle expert, our clinical leader, and our brand experts each weighed in on the current reality and resulting recommendations. A few chairs threw some zingers at us regarding the validity and sources of the data, the formulas calculating the opportunities, or about “who we talked to.” Yet it all seemed fair and reasonable. 

Then came the last part: leadership and culture. This was where the lens focused not on the tens of thousands of caregivers out there, but rather on the 25 or so human beings in the room around us. After all, they were responsible for leading all of this! We pointed out about 7 simple themes – one slide at a time. One about the need for greater communication. One about leadership in silos. One about consensus-mired decision-making.  Again, they seemed fair and perfectly expected. But the next slide, the most innocent and humble slide in the entire presentation, really set the room on fire.  

The slide was essentially this: a box saying “New Group Acquisition” with a clinic icon at the top. Under it, in the middle of the slide, was a basic icon of a hill or mountain. An arrow on the left showed the medical group team going up the left side of the hill. An arrow on the right showed the other clinical department – the leopard’s department – going up the right side of the hill. And finally, a quote from our interviews at the very bottom that read, “We really wanted to acquire the group because we knew we had to do it before the other department did.” 


I shifted in my chair uncomfortably. Everyone continued to stare at the screen intently, mulling it, weighing it in their scales. The medical group CEO was looking around the room reading every set of eyes. It was the simplest slide. It only had one quote and a damned clip art. I looked harder and harder at the clicker in the hand of my own CEO, the “consultant,” who was still leaning back against the wall letting the silence painfully linger.  “Just. Click. Next.” I thought.

Aside from how I’d not yet learned the power of letting a silence become an active force, here’s what was really going on in my mind: this slide was the real elephant in the room, and it signified everything that was most challenging. They were seemingly a house divided, competing with one another, and potentially investing resources at massive scale – not on the multi-million dollar consulting recommendations that such and such company provided 3 months prior, not on a robust strategic roadmap that they were committed and aligned to – but rather potentially based on ego and an insatiable endeavor to control how the organization would ultimately succeed. Everything we had talked about, looked at, and worked on, was some percentage of a facade compared to this dynamic. You couldn’t see it. It wasn’t spoken. But it affected everything. 

Then it happened.

The long silence finally broke with a crash. The one CEO about lost their composure, exclaiming, “This can’t be true! At least not completely true. Who said this? Does anyone else agree with this?”

The group looked around at each other. They looked at the lions, and they looked at the leopard. Fortunately, the leopard smiled. He loved it. The silence continued to linger around the table as the group awaited his response.

“It seems right to me,” the leopard – or department chair – finally said in a calm tone. “It feels like we’re running this place in the day-to-day like totally different organizations. We don’t have one way of doing things. It’s us versus them, new versus old, this department versus that department. So whether or not this is entirely why the one group was acquired, the principle here is something more broadly affecting our ability to live our mission, and it needs to change.”

Slowly, others began to chime in. They agreed. They gave other examples. They loved the truth once it was out in the open – it just wasn’t easy to do. It had never felt safe.

Fast forwarding a few months after that fateful meeting, and the chess pieces had all moved into place. The CEOs – the lions – got their buy-in and momentum for a system-wide change initiative that would ultimately make a big difference for their patients and teams. The department chair, or the leopard, got his right-hand put in charge of leading the new medical group initiative, in effect giving him the ability to influence and lead the change that he felt was so vital. Win-win achieved. Somehow by getting the essential truth out into the open, we had walked between the lion and the leopard and survived. Our clients were all happier, their patients were better served, and I was on my way to being a wiser corporate bushman.

This could have also been anyone’s boardroom. It wasn’t unique to health care how ultimately leaders were behaving as expert-and-yet-evolving human beings. They all had good intentions, many of the right answers, and were putting customers and their teams at the center of their focus. Nonetheless, how they defined and achieved success was vastly disparate. 

Since then, whenever I’ve entered the world of a new client, a community, a political dialogue, or nearly any other arena, I’ve never forgotten that the solution is somewhere between one side and another. It’s not black and white. Rarely as simple as right and wrong, though the world craves the simplicity of stark opposition. Surviving and thriving is somewhere in the middle. 

So what do you think happened to the waterbuck? The answer continues to turn up at some point back there between the lion and the leopard.



Sometimes elephants can be quiet and lying in a corner. Sometimes they crash through the middle of the room. Either way, they must be acknowledged and tamed as soon as possible.

  • What is most consistently your elephant in the room when leadership at your organization is working together?
  • Why is it so hard to “call out” that elephant?
  • What is at stake when trying to put honesty on the table instead of the more traditional tactful or ‘corporate’ conversation, and what is at stake if you don’t?
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