To Find a Unicorn

A young leopard learns that unicorns are closer than the legends might make them seem, and yet they are also not quite what she expected in the real world around her.

NOTE: this is a version of a children’s story that I wrote for my daughters and son to help them learn about seeing greatness in the people around them, but grown ups tell me it’s just as – if not more – relevant to them.


“And then,” finished Duma as he leaned in and looked hard into the children’s eyes, “the unicorn leapt from the water and flew into the sky, never to be seen again by the crocodiles.”

Mara, a growing leopard cub, sat in amazement as Duma cheetah finished his tale about another adventure during his many travels as a much younger adult. She loved tales about the unicorns. As the crowd of young animals dispersed, Mara pranced back toward her den while dreaming about how amazing it would be to meet a real unicorn.

“Mama,” she said to Mama Leopard upon reaching the den. “Have you ever seen a unicorn before?” 

“Well, I’m not certain, but I believe so,” her Mama replied. “It was a long time ago. But now it’s time for you to sleep. Perhaps you can dream about the unicorn you seek, and one day you will find them yourself.”

As the years passed, Mara grew to be a young adult leopard, ready to leave the den and go on her own adventure. She never forgot the stories and her desire to finally meet a unicorn. When the day arrived for her to leave on her own, Mara’s Mama blessed her and walked to the edge of the savanna. 

“Where will you go on your first adventure, my little one?”

“Mama, I am going to find a unicorn,” Mara replied as she looked to the horizon with determined eyes.

“Really?” Mama said raising her brow. “Where do you think you will find one?”

“I don’t know yet, but I think I will go try and search for places where a unicorn would want to live. Places much different than our home I imagine.”

“Alright, Mara,” Mama leopard replied. “Remember to be careful, use what you have been taught, and return to me once you have found them so you can tell me what you have learned on your own.”

“I will!” Mara said, and with swift steps, she bounded out into the savanna. She quickly turned and passed under the occasional shadows of tree after tree like her mother had taught her.

Soon, she arrived at a thicket of large brush and thorns. It was high and deep, tangled and twisted. It was so thick, Mara couldn’t see through it!  Surely a unicorn lived inside this place. She climbed and crawled, stretched, reached, slid, and picked her way to the middle of the brush. Realizing there could be no unicorn in this dark and tangled cocoon, Mara turned to head back the way she came in.

But to her alarm, she heard the sound of many hyenas gathering around outside. They had smelled the young leopard trail and followed her up to the thicket. Laughing at her situation, the hyenas began to surround the thick brush and call to her with threats and cackles.  What would she do now? Sad and afraid, Mara sunk even lower into her narrow spot in the brush.

Suddenly, with a snap and thunderous clamor, light burst into the thicket as a giant horn broke through all the tangles and thorns. An enormous, armored creature looked at her with kind eyes and empathy.

“Charge out with me!” the creature exclaimed.

With no alternative, Mara sprang up and followed the massive gray beast as it turned and charged back into the savanna, parting the fearful hyenas like an elephant through a maize field. When soon they had escaped all danger, the creature turned to Mara and gave her a smile.

“Are you a unicorn?” Mara asked the creature.

“Me? I don’t think so,” the creature responded. “I am Kifaru, a rhinoceros!”

“Oh,” said Mara with slight disappointment in her voice. “I thought you might be a unicorn because of your horn. But you have no wings and not so long of legs.”

“Well, I’m sorry to disappoint you, young leopard. But all the same, if you ever find yourself in trouble again, just call for Kifaru. I am a keeper of the savanna, and you have my horn as long as you too help me make the savanna a better place.”

“Thank you, Kifaru,” said Mara. “I will remember you. But for now, I must find my unicorn.”

With that, Mara continued toward the horizon in search of the next mystical hideaway fit for a unicorn. Soon, the young leopard arrived at a deep ravine where the river passed low through the savanna. There were so many trees, bushes, logs, and rocks along each side of this ravine, making it a likely hiding place for a unicorn to be able to hide in such a place. “This is where I will find them,” she thought.

Descending down into the river ravine, Mara searched around for what she thought a unicorn would look like. There was no sign of one, however. Hopping along the rocks and logs in the water, Mara began to cross, trying to reach the other side. Although something in the river soon had other ideas. All around her, rocks began moving and slowly creeping toward here. Only they weren’t rocks.


In a panic, Mara jumped from rock to rock but couldn’t finish crossing the river before a circle of crocodiles formed around here. Their enormous bodies rose out of the water showing their menacing jaws. This seemed like an unfortunate ending to what started as a very hopeful journey. But when all was nearly lost, a shadow came from over Mara’s head.

“Fly with me,” a voice said.

Mara looked up as she felt two strong claws clutch her shoulders, and just before the sharp jaws of a crocodile closed around the rest of her there on the rock, she was lifted up into the sky. The bird-like creature from above carried her out of the ravine and across the open savanna to the top of an open baobab tree.  After setting Mara down, the large, winged animal landed next to her. Its long legs were graceful despite the claws, and it had the most beautiful feathers that rose from its head like a lady’s hat.

“Are you a unicorn?” Mara asked the creature.

“Me, a unicorn? Well my goodness, what a compliment. I am Karani, and I am a secretary bird,” she replied.

“A secretary bird?” Mara looked disappointed.

“Yes, I am a keeper of the savanna. And I’m glad I found you when I did,” said Karani.

“Indeed. You certainly saved my life, Karani,” said Mara with relief. “I will be forever thankful. Please forgive me if I seem disappointed. It’s just that I have been on a quest to find a unicorn, and it has already been most difficult.”

“A unicorn,” thought the slender secretary bird. “I don’t know that I have ever seen one myself. If I had, I would definitely have a record.”

“Where have you not looked, Karani? Perhaps I should start there.” 

Karani thought. “Well I spend most of my time in the open savanna where I can see the smallest things from up high in the air. I have not explored the depths of the forest beyond this baobab.”

“Of course,” said Mara. “A unicorn would not be out where the sun sees all of the creatures all day long. They would be under the trees and in the shadows. Thank you, Karani. I already owe you my life, and now you have given me great direction as well.” 

With that, Mara bid the stately secretary bird farewell, slid down the great tree, and bounded into the forest.

No sooner than she did, however, a large pair of glowing eyes glared intently at her from the darkness. They rose up on a neck that was taller than her, continuing into the forest without legs or wings, as though it had no end.

“Umm, who are you?” Mara asked quietly, beginning to feel afraid.

“I am Mamba, and this is my forest you have entered,” the creature responded. “I am a snake, though many call me Nyota.”

“Mamba, I almost did not see you. You are dark like a panther, but panther are my kind. Are you good, Mamba?”

The snake hissed with a smile. “Yes, young one. I am quite good – to me, that is. To me, I am very good. To many creatures, however,” he paused to smack his flexing jaws. “To many creatures of the forest, I am the last thing they see.”

Mara watched Mamba start to look at her as though she were a nice meal, and she realized this snake was not good. But he would not be the last thing she saw!  With a leap, Mara jumped up the closest tree and climbed as quickly as her strong leopard limbs could carry her. Leopards were gifted climbers.

But the snake climbed too.

“Little leopard, why have you come all the way to this side of the savanna?” Mamba hissed as he wound his way up the tree closer to where Mara crouched on a high branch. 

“I am on a quest,” Mara responded with a glare.

“A quest… “ hissed Mamba thoughtfully. “A quest to find what?”

“A unicorn,” she said.

“A unicorn? There are no unicorns in this forest, little leopard,” Mamba responded confidently. “I have eaten almost every kind of creature in this forest, but never a unicorn. I would know.” He moved his head from side to side, studying her like she was an object.

“Well you wouldn’t be able to catch a unicorn,” Mara explained confidently. “They are heavenly creatures with wings that could carry you or me, legs that run like they never touch the ground, and a horn that can cut through the thickest brush.”

“Inspiring,” Mamba said as he moved even closer to Mara on her branch high up in the tree. “Though everyone knows that Mamba is the fastest and deadliest in the forest. So I look forward to the challenge.”

“Tell me,” he said to her, now at eye-level with one another, “why must you find this unicorn?”

Mara thought silently a moment. She couldn’t remember why she wanted to find the unicorns. It was always a dream of hers since she was a small cub listening to the stories Duma the cheetah told from his many adventures. The way he described the unicorns made them seem so incredible, so perfect. 

“I just need to find them,” she said. 

“But why do you need to find them?” Mamba hissed.

“Because – well, because they are special. And wherever they are, that place must be special and perfect too.” Mara sighed, realizing it probably sounded a little silly.

“Lovely little leopard,” Mamba said as his long snake body began coiling around the tree and branch where Mara sat. “You are looking for something that does not exist. Let me tell you,” he continued. “I have lived many years in this forest. I have seen everything and eaten everything. Every time I found bigger and tastier prey, I soon wanted to eat something even larger and tastier than the last. Every time. Soon, I was as great and long as you see me now. But my disappointment has grown far greater than even me…” he hissed as he closed his eyes in thought.

“The truth is, leopard,” Mamba said opening his glowing eyes again with focus. “There is nothing that can satisfy you in life. Nothing is perfect. Nothing is special. It’s just one meal after another. In the end, you’re only left with yourself.” And with that, he leaned closer to Mara as though to enclose her completely. His wide, black jaw began to open with greed.

Then suddenly, a bright ray of light shined into the forest from below, and with it a new voice entered the conversation. “Good afternoon, Mamba. I am sorry to interrupt, but this doesn’t seem like the kind of meal you would have ordered. I think I will take it back to where it came from.” The long, friendly face of this stranger turned from Mamba to look at Mara, blinking its eyes with big, long eyelashes.

“Ride with me,” she said. “Quick! Climb onto my neck.”

Mara realized she had no choice but to trust this new friend and leapt onto her neck just as Mamba shot at where Mara was sitting with large, open fangs.

Bursting back into the outside world, Mara was lifted from the darkness of the tree into the warm sun of the savanna once again. She held onto the long neck of the great animal as it carried her at great speed away from the forest and back across the plains. With long, swift legs it floated across the grass. Its legs moved so fast, and yet they looked so slow – such was the graceful way in which the long creature ran. Mara was amazed. Perhaps she had finally succeeded in her quest.

“Are you a unicorn?” she asked from her perch on the creature’s neck.

“Me, a unicorn?” The creature responded and slowed down to a walk, though still covering a lot of ground with each step of its long legs. “I am Twiga, and I am a giraffe. I don’t think I know what a unicorn is.”

Not so surprised this time, and a little less disappointed, Mara explained. “Twiga, a unicorn is the most perfect being on earth. It has swift legs that float over the ground, wings that can carry it high above the trees, and a horn that can defend against the worst of enemies. I have been on a quest to find one, and no, you are not that creature.” Mara sighed and slipped her way down Twiga’s long neck onto the middle of the giraffe’s back. “But that’s okay of course,” Mara continued. “You saved my life, and I will be forever grateful for you. Thank you for coming to my rescue in the forest.”

“Any time, little leopard,” Twiga said. “I am a keeper of the savanna, and I travel it often to help those in need like yourself. There is a lot of ground to travel across, so that is why my long legs can be helpful.”

“Well you are a great rescuer, Twiga, and I think a unicorn would be most impressed if they ever met you,” Mara said with a smile. “And if I ever meet one, I will tell them about you.”

With a few more steps and a few more farewells, Twiga set the tired leopard down to continue her journey back across the savanna. Mara was now much closer to home than when she met the sorrowful snake in the forest. She even considered returning to her Mama now that the sun was beginning to set, and thought that perhaps her journey was not one she was meant to complete.

But as her paws stepped through the grass and toward the next tree line toward home, she noticed a place along the way that she’d never seen before. Pausing, she peered through the tall savanna grass at what seemed to be a low, peaceful glade of green grass and trees. All throughout, there was a sparkling mist that covered each twig and leaf. It was beautiful.

Creeping into the glade, Mara smelled the fresh scent of vines and flowers. The mist left a light dew on everything it touched. Her steps were quiet and soft, so she passed deeper into the glad without causing any alarm.

And there it was. A unicorn.

Up ahead, enclosed in the heaviest part of the mist, was the cloudy shadow of a creature Mara knew she had been looking for. It appeared to have long, strong legs and a noble horn on its head. The mist curled up and around its back like heavenly wings. It was sideways so that she could see its full figure, but not close enough that she could know for sure whether it saw her.

“Hello!” Mara said in more of a whisper.

No reply.

“Don’t be afraid,” Mara continued, a little louder. “Please don’t run. I’ve spent all day looking for you.”

Still no reply.

“You would not believe what I’ve been through along the way.” Mara began to share her story and simply hoped that it stayed to listen. She told of the briar thicket and the hyenas that tried to snatch her out, and of the bravery that the mighty rhinoceros showed with its horn that cut through the thorns. She told about the perilous water filled with crocodiles, and how the perceptive secretary bird with its swift wings had carried her high up to the top of the baobab tree. Mara described the incredible feeling of riding over the savanna on the neck of the graceful giraffe with its long legs that floated across the plains. When her story was complete, she felt a sense of amazement about the creatures she’d met and the abilities they possessed.

“So you see,” Mara said, “I’ve seen so much and come so far. But of course none of it compares to you. I’m so happy to finally meet a real unicorn!”

Now the creature in the mist started to move closer and turned its head to look at her. In a moment of realization, Mara saw it had not one horn – but two.  She blinked as it walked out of the mist and looked at her with glassy, golden brown eyes and a long, soft beard of white fur around its neck.

“Hello, little leopard,” it said. “I was going to run from you when you arrived, since you are a hunter and I am your prey. But once you began sharing your story I thought I should stay and listen.” He walked closer toward her but kept a safe distance.

He continued, “As you can see, I am not a unicorn. But it sounds like you already found it.”

Puzzled, Mara stared at him with questions in her eyes and thoughts running through her head. She thought back on her story and tried to remember where she had mentioned a unicorn but somehow missed it herself.

Then it all made sense. The great horn, the wings, and the graceful runner. Rescuers of the savanna. She had indeed found her unicorn. It just wasn’t one creature, but all of them together. Mara had met the most amazing creatures in times when she needed them most, and yet somehow she’d been disappointed each time. She only now realized how each of them was special and perfect in their own way. They were a unicorn team, and they were making the savanna better every day.

“You are quite right. Mister….?” Mara started to respond.

“Kuro,” he said. “I am a waterbuck. I’ve just come back with my family from an encounter with one of your kind and some lions, and thankfully we made it back to the herd. I guess one of your unicorns came down the path we were walking and provided a timely distraction.”

“They seem to come at just the right time,” Mara said.

“Yes,” Kuro smiled. “If you let them. But to find a unicorn, as you now know, you don’t just go looking. You must welcome them to be seen. If you always look for creatures to be somewhere else, be someone else, or be something greater and more special than they appear, just because you have a different idea of what they should be, you will disappoint both them and yourself. You must call upon them for who they already are. That is how they can truly be their best.”

“You are right, Kuro,” Mara said with a tired smile. “I am grateful to have met you, and thank you for helping me see better.”

“Any time, though I am not sure what else I can do for you. You found your unicorn on your own.” He began to turn away as he talked. “Now speaking of finding creatures, I would ask you one thing in return.”

“Of course, Kuro.” Mara said. “What can I do?”

“Perhaps as you get bigger, forget that you found this old waterbuck here in the glade. I wouldn’t want to be the goal of your next quest, especially if you are hungry.” He winked at her and bowed his two horns at her with a kind goodbye.

“Any time,” Mara laughed. “I will forever remember you as the unicorn I met in the mist.”

With that, Mara and the unicorn parted. She turned toward home with thoughts of how she would tell her Mama all about her quest, and how over the next day she would find her many new friends and join them for more adventures.



I have worked with a number of leaders across chapters of my career who were exceptionally passionate about making the world better in so many ways. They were dynamic, charismatic, and compelling. People truly believed after listening to any of these leaders that they could make the world better too.

However, people often found that eventually it was difficult to be successful doing the things that these leaders taught. And by the same token, these leaders (galvanized by their own unique paths to success) became so often disappointed and disillusioned with their followers when they weren’t looking and becoming exactly like themselves. “They don’t get it,” they might say after a honeymoon-period of working together and hoping the desired unicorn transformation would begin in their followers.

The problem was: these leaders were trying to mold people into what they thought a “unicorn” should be and do. Rather, they should have examined what each person could potentially be if and when they were the best version of who they already were. In fact, many of these individuals were already best-in-class experts in leadership, clinical care, finance, and other very valuable areas. They were heroes of the savanna – they just didn’t look like the leaders’ specific idea of a unicorn. Moreover, they were showing up each day – these new experts and unicorns in their own right – offering their eager hearts and minds to the cause. But since the real things didn’t match the believed myth, the adventures together were short-lived.

It certainly isn’t necessary to think that anyone can do any job or lead anything if you just give them the right time and chance, but it is helpful to keep your expectations in check. You can’t force a rhinoceros to fly. And the danger is not simply poor performance – the creature will also doubt themselves and their purpose. In fact, to kill a unicorn is to put it into a pen or give it a job that it wasn’t born to do. After a while, your unicorns will die potentially due to your own design.

  • Are you consistently disappointed? Is it simply because you have “exceptionally high standards,” or could sometimes be that your idea of success might not be entirely correct?
  • Who is someone that hasn’t met your expectations or definition of “right fit?” Was it because they couldn’t do the right job, or was the job accordingly wrong for them?
  • What do you do when you’re disappointed? Do you give up on that person or yourself, or have you also thought again about how you’re approaching it?
  • How often do you meet someone and try to understand what their “superpower” already is before evaluating if they have the one you need? The former, or both together, may in fact be more helpful in the journey to come.
  • What is one way you can help a unicorn in your life be the best version of themselves? It might mean fostering a passion or skill. It might mean changing their environment. It might mean letting them go.
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