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#10 - Greek Proverb: … Defeat An Army of Lions Led By a Sheep
Reflections on performance and success when expected to succeed.
Proverbs on Blast is a newsletter that publishes reflection on PROVERBS and the gems they offer for personal and professional growth. Posts are written by a learner on a quest for more wisdom (me). Please keep reading. Comment at the end. Share this post. Subscribe for more.
This edition of the newsletter is a continuation of an earlier article #9. It completes a two-part reflection that began with the first part of the interesting proverb: “an army of sheep led by a lion will defeat an army of lions led by a sheep.” The previous article concentrated on the earlier part of the proverb directed at “an army of sheep led by a lion.” Article #9 was a reflection on performance and success when least expected to succeed. It explored the features and characteristics of sheep. It imagined the training, discipline, and preparation that would have taken place for a gentle flock of sheep to be transformed into a formidable army of sheep. In that post, I explored the need for the sheep’s choice of a lion as the leader of their army. I hinted at the initial discomfort of being under the training regimen of a dreaded foe in close proximity to it daily. The power imbalance between the two could not be starker—a predator and a captive grouping of its prey.
If we indulge our imagination, we all can come up with some gory suppositions of unintended contacts and clumsy clashes between the two species during training. It’s not difficult to picture a sheep quivering at the roars that must have intermittently bellowed from the lion leader. Or the guilty “I’m sorry, I got carried away, I won’t do it again” commiserations that the lion leader would have repeated several times to reassure his followers. However rough or challenging, the flock of sheep outlasted army training and emerged a fierce, formidable group that only the ignorant or arrogant could afford to undermine.
At the battle front, where it was showdown for the two armies, the proverb spills the beans that the army of sheep won. That disclosure feeds our curiosity about the outcome of the battle. But the disclosure does not prepare us to process the incongruity of how such an outcome could have been. Lions suffered defeat in the hands of sheep? The conclusion last week was that the sheep that showed up on the day of battle were not a flock of sheep, but an army of sheep. That distinction between the two different types of sheep made all the difference at the battlefront. Sadly, it appears the lions did not get the memo and the predators were felled by what should have been some of their easiest preys.
What went wrong? The lion is renowned for courage, strength, and being a ferocious predator. Legendary in human circles, we’ve tagged it the “king of the jungle” though it lives in savannah grasslands and plains. We have the images of its body—in part and in full—on the national crests of several countries. And through the ages, many great leaders have been associated with lions through their official titles and beloved nicknames. There are hundreds of movies and books that document tales, fiction, and non-fiction accounts either about lions or with them as illustration. Two of the most popular—CS Lewis’ The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe, and Lion King, the animated touching story of Simba, his family, and escapades—remain classics for multiple generations. Why the fixation on them? And why did they lose what should have been an easy win? This article is a reflection on performance and success when expected to succeed.
Let’s dig into some background on lions before analyzing the battle and its shocking outcome of defeat in the hands of sheep. For more details about lions, check out the national geographic and Karin Lehnardt’s 91 Roaring Lion Facts. If you’d like a refresher on quick facts about sheep, get to Article #9.
Quick Facts About Lions
General Features. There are clear distinctions between male and female lions. Adult males weigh between 400-500 pounds while females weigh about half of that. Lions are the ones with manes, which tells a lot about them to rivals and potential mates. Lionesses do not have manes, which makes it easy to tell them apart. Findings from the Lion Research Center in Tanzania helped uncover that the darker the shade of the mane, the older the lion, the higher its testosterone levels, the stronger the virility, and the faster their ability to heal from wounds. The darker-maned males are therefore the heartthrobs of lionesses, and they prefer to mate with them to ensure the continuity of life.
Lions walk without their heels touching the ground. Compared to their big cat cousins—tigers, leopards, cheetahs, and jaguars—they are also the slowest runners in the family though they can easily run short distances at 50 mph in short bursts of speed. Their strong bodies can stretch up to 10 feet long, which makes them great swimmers. When the situation demands, they can leap as far as 36 feet. Also, lions are the only cat that roars but they cannot produce their first roar until age two. Once they start though, their roar has a terrifying 5-mile-range.
Lions deserve a honorable mention in the sleep category. They sleep for 20-22 hours a day and scavenge mostly at night. They must consume about 18 pounds of meat daily to stay well. For a human, that would be about 70 hamburgers a day. Approximately 90% of their nightly raids are done by lionesses with about 50% success rate. Lions have loose skin on their belly that desperate preys often kick at or bite without hurting them. When successful, they get their captives to their pride alive and use them for cubs’ hunting practice before they feast on them for dinner or breakfast.
Senses. A lion sees better than humans but with little peripheral vision. They have to move their heads from side to side to see in the direction of whatever they hear. Their hearing is sharp and picks sound distinctly from a mile away. They also have several tools on their bodies, which they use to full advantage. One is the protractible claws that they use to scratch and pierce their prey. Each claw is about 3 inches long, about the size of the human finger. They’re sheathed when not in use, which helps keep them sharp and allow them to move in their majestic prance without tensing up. Another bodily tool is their special rough and scratchy tongue that can peel the skin off their prey to expose the flesh. Just a few licks by a lion’s tongue can peel away much of the skin on a human body. In addition, just as you can tell the age of a male by the shade of its mane, so you can tell lions apart by the unique pattern of a black spot on the base of their whiskers. To each, their own. Each lion has a distinct pattern that’s akin to the human fingerprint.
Prides. Lions are the only social big cat and live in prides with other lions. The population of a pride can be between 2-40, with 13 lions being the average number that live together. Each pride comprises one dominant male, two or three other males, and a majority of females who are related and their cubs. The dominant male has a dual role. One, he must mate with all the females and get them pregnant. Usually, he gets the job done over two days of dedicated attention to the task with each one. Reproduction is relatively fast, and females carry pregnancies to term in just 3½ months. Secondly, he must defend the pride from male aggressors who seek to take over. Lion prides are matriarchal, and they take the “it takes a village” mantra seriously in the communal care for cubs. However, with space for only two to three males in a pride, lions get kicked out of their prides by their moms and aunts at age 2 to go fend for themselves and start their own prides. In contrast, lionesses often live in the same pride for their entire lives.
Fights. Territorial wars break out a lot and lions are at the center of it. Usually, the two or three lions in the pride are able to exert control for an average of 4 years before a rival male gang kills them and all the cubs to start a new family with the lionesses. In addition, each pride controls a territory of approximately 100 square miles. The members of the prides around the water sources are better off as they have access to a wide variety of animals who must drink from the rivers. This prime location makes them more vulnerable to concerted attacks by prideless males who seek to start families of their own in relative ease. With all that they have going on, only about 1 out of 8 lions make it to adulthood, though they can live up to 12 or 16 years.
Captivity. Humans are fascinated by lions and have captured a number of them in zoos and circuses around the world. Many can live up to 20 years in captivity, away from the fierce turf wars that is the fate of lions in the wild. Strange things also happen to lions in captivity, one of which is their mating partners. For instance, when a lioness and a male leopard mate, they produce a leopon whose head is lion-like and whose body is leopard-like. Male jaguars and lionesses have mated to produce jaglions. The offspring of a lioness and a male tiger is called a tigon and the offspring of a male lion and tigress is called a liger. Check out what a tigon/tigron and liger look like.
Back to the battlefront in our proverb: “an army of sheep led by a lion will defeat an army of lions led by a sheep.” The lions have gone out to war against the sheep. The only objective of a lion at war is to kill. Either for food or to exert dominance. Often, they have to lie in wait, then pounce on their prey to slash and slice them into a weakened state before dragging them away. In this proverb, the battle is over, and we know who won. It’s time for the post-mortem. Time for the analyses of what went wrong.
An Army of Lions Defeated by An Army of Sheep?
There are things that should never be uttered and one of them is the report that an army of lions suffered defeat in the hands of an army of sheep. However we spin it, there is no justification for such a battle outcome nor is there any easy way to process it. What went wrong in a battle between a strong carnivore and a less strong vegetarian? How likely is it that an animal with a ferocious appetite can meet a potential ready meal yet still lose it? Far more likely than we often admit, especially when the stronger has peculiarities that disadvantage it in battle, and he does little or nothing to strategize around his strengths and weaknesses. There are several hyped things about lions that, if dialed back to the truth, should surprise no one that they can suffer defeat by weaker opponents. This post-mortem will focus on 5 mis-es that made the lions lose to the sheep.
Misconceptions. The way the battle went down suggests that the lions had a series of misconceptions about the sheep. First, there is no reason why a sheep should not quiver at the sound of a lion. Their roar can be heard from 5 miles away and their claws are deadly. When a natural prey has the audacity to show up in battle and face a deadly predator for a fight, it’s time to pause to get a better sense of its motivation and source of courage. What prey knowingly does that except one on a suicide mission or one that’s been trained to war against bigger, stronger, and fiercer predators and knows it can win? Yet an army of them moved in with sure strides to war against the lions and the lions thought it was business as usual. Any wonder why the sheep prevailed over the lions?
Mischaracterizations. Dictionaries define this word as to give a false or misleading character to something or someone. In the earlier article about the army of sheep, I emphasized the role of the right training by the right leader as a crucial preparation for battle with a formidable foe. The sheep stayed firmly aware of the character of their foe till they gained the courage, knowledge, and skill to fight them. At the battlefront, it did not matter how often the lions had languished under the mischaracterization of the sheep as stupid, gullible, easy prey. That mischaracterization influenced the way the lions prepared and showed up for battle and cost them a lot. They lost two of the most important things to them—food and dominance—to a weaker, lesser species. While they may live to fight another day and win, they lost that important battle. They got more than they bargained for because they mischaracterized their foe.
Misjudgment. Misconceptions about others, especially who are weaker, can lead to mischaracterizations about them and misjudgment of their abilities, performance, and outcomes. A lion’s strength and courage are legendary, but these qualities can give it a false sense of importance and prowess. They also do not automatically qualify them for military success. For though acclaimed king of the animal kingdom, their 50% success rate at hunting suggests that even lions also require training. While they get these from the adult lionesses in their pride, their training is targeted at hunting their prey, not how to deal with preys that walk up to them prepared for battle, like the army of sheep in this proverb. These sheep were not at the battlefront to frolic in the face of danger. Seeing a flock of sheep heading in their direction is the first sign of unusual behavior that should have made the lions pause to re-assess the situation. but the slippery slope of misconceptions and mischaracterizations inevitably spirals downward into costly misjudgment. No wonder the humiliating outcome of defeat.
Miscalculations. An army is never done with training if they are to be ready to combat existing and new threats. By the day of the battle, the army of sheep had received training sufficient for their first face-off in battle. They knew they had to confront a formidable army of lions and had put in the work to overcome their natural fright and flight response to them. They knew it’d be an unusual fight, a foolhardy one to onlookers, and a seeming death wish to the army of lions. But they were ready and showed up ready to fight.
In contrast, the lion’s misconception, mischaracterization, and misjudgment, of the sheep shaped their preparation for the battle. It is good to be strong, but wisdom prescribes using the right strategy to maximize strength. The mistake of misjudging the army of sheep spiraled into misinterpreting the seriousness of their decision to fight. The lions did not anticipate a lion leader for the army of sheep they met in battle. How bad was this miscalculation on their part?
One of the many ways it could have been bad for the lions was the timing. Lions like to scavenge for prey between the 2-4 nighttime hours that they manage to stay awake. Chuck Jones, the late American animator, director, and painter, best known for his work with Warner Bros summed them up well with the observation that “a lion’s work hours are only when he’s hungry; once he’s satisfied, the predator and prey live peacefully together.”
Thus, it is possible that while the sheep were putting their all into getting through various rounds of training by a lion general, the army of lions stuck to their nocturnal hunting schedule. Compare an army that spends about 80% of the day sleeping with another that needs less than 20% nap time to function. Consider the impact of that disparity in sleep times and patterns on preparation time and focus for any serious venture. Sheep don’t even take the 4 hours of sleep they need at a stretch. They understand their vulnerability to prowling predators like lions. So, they usually flock together to graze and huddle together as they sleep lightly. In terms of training for battle, which of the two has more time to prepare? The sleeping ferocious lion that can only manage to stay awake for 2 to 4 hours of the day or the less strong sheep that can snatch sleep in bits and pieces, including while upright on all fours? In terms of fighting in battle, what was the lions’ strategy to win? Any wonder why the weak can sometimes subdue the strong?
Mistakes. Let’s pretend that the other 4 mis-es are not mistakes. If there is one fundamental mistake that is at the foundation of the defeat suffered by the army of lions, it is in the appointment of their leader. A strong person who surrenders to the leadership of the weak should expect to lose by giving away its strength without benefitting from the weakness of its chosen leader. Knowing how lions often fight to the kill, what could have possessed an army of lions to appoint a sheep as their leader? Was it the sheep’s superior vision? Had the sheep fought with a band of lions before and prevailed? Both lions and sheep are social animals that live in groups. Both species care about their young. But did the lions know that a sheep’s sharp memory allows it to recognize members of its flock even up to two years after separating from them? How does that compare with their own practice of kicking out their own sons and nephews at age two to fend for themselves? Having appointed a sheep to lead them, what if the sheep arrived in battle and discovered that the army behind enemy lines are his long-lost relatives? Studies show that the sheep will decamp. Could this have been part of the problem at the battlefront? If so, shouldn’t a serious army have anticipated that and chosen a different leader? Misconception fuels ignorance. Mischaracterization breeds arrogance. Misjudgment can stem from both ignorance and arrogance and will certainly lead to miscalculations and the kind of costly mistakes that the army of lions made.
An Appeal to Lions
When strange things happen, like sheep defeating lions in battle, they cause us to pause and reflect. There is no reason why a sheep should not quiver at the sound of a lion but the the natural impracticality in this proverb of a group of sheep heading towards the lions are not on a mission to be eaten but to fight. Thus, when a natural prey has the audacity to show up in battle and face such a deadly predator for a fight, it’s time to pause to get a better sense of its motivation and source of courage. What prey knowingly does that except one on a suicide mission or one that’s been trained to war against bigger, stronger, and fiercer predators and knows it can win. Their leader is a lion, likely a dominant male that was ejected from its first pride.
Are you a lion? Have you suffered the bitter experience of losing battles that you had no business losing? Hold on to misconceptions about the weak as though they cannot strengthen their weaknesses to your own disadvantage. Mischaracterize those who you must face in battle to your own detriment. And misjudge others at your own peril. You will make mistakes galore and suffer humiliating defeats in abundance.
Never underestimate an opponent based on natural knowledge. The audacity of a small prey to show up in battle and face you for a fight should give you pause and lead you to rethink and restrategize. Preferably before arriving at the battlefront.
You do not know where people have been. You do not know the changes that have happened to and in them since the last time you saw them. Do not relate to people that you saw last month as though nothing about them has changed. Avoid using the generics of personality types to define people. Don’t presume that you have everyone figured out. The sheep that you think is part of a flock could have completed elite training that equips them to give you a sound defeat. Keep an open mind to discover new things and stay on guard.
And for the sake of all that’s normal, rise up as a lion. If sheep can embrace their strengths and overcome their weaknesses to face bigger predators like you, what efforts are you willing to make to rise to the leadership status symbol that the whole world ascribes to you as a lion? You are expected to succeed. Rise up and prepare for your performance to achieve success.
Do you have additional insights on this part of the proverb to share? Or perhaps a personal experience? Or insights about additional reasons why an army of lions can lose to an army of sheep?
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