#9 - Greek Proverb: An Army of Sheep Led By A Lion Will ...
Reflections on performance and success when least 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.
The proverb in this post is attributed to several sources. It was first credited to Chabrias, a formidable Greek general who lived from 420-357 BC. His military exploits extended to North Africa, and he is famed to have “never lost a single city or post or ship or solider” under his command. The version of the proverb credited to him says that "an army of deer commanded by a lion is more to be feared than an army of lions commanded by a deer". Later, a variant: "An army of sheep led by a lion would defeat an army of lions led by a sheep" was claimed to be Arabian in origin. Some also attribute the sheep version of the proverb to Ghana. After WWI, some Russian and English pundits on the war clung to the same proverb but substituted “deer” and “sheep” with “donkey.” Through the 17 centuries and multiple cultures this proverb has journeyed to get to us, lions have retained their place in reference to the different animals they naturally prey on. Yet, lions are not the heroes in any of the variants. Why?
Two things spurred my reflection on this proverb. The first was thinking about the war in Ukraine and the fact that the invasion that started last winter continues on into another winter. Victory was supposed to be swift, and the invasion should have lasted less than a week. Yet here we are 11 months later, and the war still rages on. Secondly, the 2022 FIFA World Cup soccer tournament going on now in Qatar has forced a reckoning for many soccer fans around the world. Who expected Saudi Arabia to win a match against Argentina? Or for Germany to lose to Japan? The matches have become expensive gambles, and many are hesitant to predict the winner with their usual brash certainty.
This proverb with its current combination of sheep and lions in the arena of war offers a lens through which to understand the strange outcomes in Ukraine and the FIFA tournament stadium in Qatar. Perhaps it also offers an explanation for some corresponding anomalies in and around you? The proverb turns what we know on its head and coaxes us to contemplate the unusual and seemingly improbable. It is one of those proverbs that can make you spit out your drink, double over in laughter, or simply shake your head in wonder at the audacity of whoever coined it. An army of sheep? What happened to the flock of gentle passive sheep that we all know? An army of lions? Where is the majestic pride of lions sauntering through the jungle in unchallenged majesty? Why would either lions or sheep need an army? And what’s with the most incongruous military composition and leadership of two armies facing each other led by a member of the other specie? Not much about this proverb makes sense. Fortunately, both sheep and lions are popular enough with information that can help unravel the hidden wisdom in this proverb. In this post, the focus is on the army of sheep. In another post, we shall examine the role of the army of lions.
Fun Facts About Sheep
Sheep are popular around the world. You may have been introduced through the children’s songs “Mary had a little lamb” and “Baa baa, black sheep …” Or the famous Christian Psalm 23: “The Lord is my shepherd, …” Some got acquainted with sheep on a farm, at a zoo, or the market. Some others, through their palate—cheese, milk, meat. And for some, it was via social media vitriol hurled by political opponents at each other with derogatory terms such as “sheeple.” There’s hardly any living being that has not heard about or seen sheep. But they still get a lot of mixed review. They are still the butt of human jokes and derision because it is easy to assume things about others based on what we see rather than dig deep to get to really know them, including animals. The danger with such misconceptions is that it leads to misunderstanding, misjudgment, and mistreatment. Scientific studies reiterate that there’s a lot we got wrong about sheep and several sites document useful information about their true nature.
I synthesized some of the information. If you’d like more details than the scope of this post covers, please visit the following pages: Lighthouse Farm Sanctuary; Ingrid Fadelli,Tamsin Cooper in this Countryside article; the British Columbia Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (BC SPCA); and Susan Schoenian’s Sheep101 and Sheep 201.
For this post, I’ll stick to 5 clusters of sheep details.
General. The family name is sheep. The father is a ram, the mom is an ewe, and babies up to one year old are lambs. They can live up to 12 years and all adults over one year are called sheep. There are an estimated 1000 sheep breeds around the world, 60 of which are in the US. One special breed is called the ‘Leadersheep’ and is indigenous to Iceland. This breed is a instinctive leader and naturally does a similar job as sheep dogs and human shepherds in guiding flocks of other sheep breeds. For our proverb, it appears the reference is to adult sheep.
Cognition. Sheep are quite intelligent and not stupid as many think. It takes them an average of two trials to learn new tasks quickly. Also, they have good memories and can recognize the faces of as many as 50 sheep even up to two years after separation. They can discern expressions on faces, including those of non-sheep, and recoil from aggressive faces and stances. In a study, researchers led them to a room where there were photos of sheep with different expressions on their faces. Overwhelmingly, they gravitated towards the photos of those with calm faces. Even in distress, sheep can be calmed with photos of happier, restful looking sheep. To gauge their emotions, look at their ears. For instance, when held back, they’re feeling fear or lack of control. When raised, they are at their most alert, cautious, or unhappy. Their cognition helps them recognize and respond to the emotions of other sheep.
Senses. Sheep see better than humans. Their pupils are rectangular, which widens their range of vision to around 270 to 320 degrees without the need to turn their heads. Hence, even with their heads down, which happens a lot since they are constantly grazing, they can still see almost everything around and in front of them. Further, their sense of smell is superior to that of humans. They have glands around their eyes and on their hooves that secrete smells they use to identify the members of their herds and communicate with them. Sheep also have great hearing. They can detect sound from any direction though it gets to each ear at slightly different times. Their hearing is so excellent that ewes can recognize their lambs by their bleats.
Individuality. Generally, sheep are gentle and bond together in flocks, but each sheep is unique with its own distinct personality. Similar to humans, they experience a wide range of complex emotions—fear, anger, boredom, sadness, joy, pessimism, optimism, disappointment, frustration, and distress when separated from their preferred sheep companions.
Social Behavior. Sheep need to be in a group of, at least, four or five other sheep to feel safe. Beyond protection from predators, they simply thrive better in social bonds relationships with others. Hence, they are often part of large herds that graze, play, and live together. Their cognition, keen sense of smell and scent glands help them identify those within and outside their social circle. This serves as a sort of early warning signal of danger. Sheep that stray from their flocks become more vulnerable to predators, chief of which are the coyote and wild dogs. Up to four stray sheep can band together after the initial fright to fight a predator, but a lone stray can hardly survive in isolation. Llamas, donkeys, and several dog breeds have proven to be their best sheep guardians. They help keep them with the flock and actively fight off predators.
An Army of Sheep?
In summary, sheep thrive better in a flock and have many great qualities about them. However, this proverb is not about a flock of sheep but an army of sheep. The proverb says that the gentle flock we know has become trained and are under the leadership of a lion. An army trains to fight and defend whatever cause or territory is dear to them. Any army, rightly trained and equipped, is a formidable force in war. Sheep, by nature, flee from danger. They may use strength of numbers to regroup, then charge back to fight an enemy but when alone, they stand little to no chance of survival. But here they are in this proverb, described as having gone through the rigors of discipline that has curbed their need to graze and eat all day. Their sense of sight, sound, and smell have been developed to strategic advantage and their weaknesses strengthened. Their cognition has been honed to the point that their intelligence is now sharpened for the benefit of the army.
It is clear that a flock of sheep cannot automatically become an army of sheep. It will require time, training discipline, and the right equipments. Though not stupid, smarts alone cannot qualify a flock of sheep to become an army. First, they would have to get through basic training at boot camp. Then, there would have been resident training with classroom instructions in different courses. Also, training in assigned operational units to deepen the breadth and depth of their skills and knowledge by building on their basic training. All the trainings would’ve been targeted at individual proficiency, maximum functioning with equipments, and coordination with other unit and team members. They would have gone through simulations of different war scenarios. Weaknesses would have been exposed and strengthened. Routine tasks would have sharpened muscle memory. Their natural instinct to stick close together and follow would have been developed to recognize, trust, and follow the directions of their leader. All these take time, discipline, and are not for the faint of heart.
An Army of Sheep Led by a Lion?
For the flock of sheep turned army, the commander is a lion. Picture the first day of training. The sheep may have been used to humans, shepherd dogs, llamas, donkeys, and other sheep leading them but they ended up with a lion as their leader. By nature, a predator and they, its prey. All the bigger animal had to do was activate its predatory senses. Its snarling face, roar, and wide-open jaw on a head swinging back and forth would have sent the sheep scuttling away for safety. The weak would have left army life to continue grazing, playing, bleating, sleeping, and all the other normal activities of flock life. Yet, many sheep outlasted the rigors of training and to be rightfully called an army of sheep. Competence would have fueled confidence in them and the only rational way to describe the graduates would be as the brave, the trained, and the ready to fight. Undermine them at your own peril.
We live in a world where looks matter, numbers count, resumes get padded to impress, and everything is about status. Given the choice of being called a lion or a sheep, an overwhelming majority would choose the lion. This proverb serves as a caution and reminder that lions may be stronger, faster, and more skilled than sheep, but sheep are by no means weak, slow, and totally without their own skills. Not all sheep are part of flocks. Quite a number of sheep are elite members of well-trained armies. Yet, we do ourselves a disfavor by fixating on only what we’ve read, heard, and know about the lions we revere at the expense of the sheep that we do not spare a thought. Otherwise,
How is it that a comedian, undermined for being skilled only at making people laugh, have emerged as a global icon of leadership, resilience, and inspiration at his people’s darkest period?
How is it that low-ranked soccer teams were able to fell legendary top ranks at a highly anticipated, globally-watched event and thrown off expensive bets?
How is it that family members, friends, and classmates that we considered unlikely to succeed are soaring from victory to victory?
Perhaps you are the sheep that was undermined, overlooked, passed up, and ridiculed. You’ve been denied audiences with people thought to be above your station. Considered unfit for assignments. Branded as the least likely to graduate. Recruiters scoffed at your interest in roles. Management snickered at your audacity to apply for roles considered far above your capabilities. Interviewers ridiculed your capabilities and judged you unsuitable for their setting. You’ve been told you do not look, sound, or seem eligible for the promotion that’s due you because you are a sheep, not a lion.
What could you, a sheep in a flock, accomplish in the battlefront of life, if rightly trained for an army?
Like the sheep that must leave the flock and become trained for battle, can you become part of an army of other sheep that can later defeat an army of lions?
Here are 5Cs to keep in mind to defeat an army of lions.
Choice. If you must fight an army of lions, find a lion to train you and lead you to war. This will require a lot of adjustment on your part. You will need to be smart so don’t go out to the wild in search of just any lion. Do that and chances are high that you’ll end up with a hungry lion that will see you as their walking, talking lunch and dinner. It takes a lot to be a lion leader of an army of sheep, and the right ones exist. Find them, overcome your natural inhibitions to recoil from them, and have them train you for some of the biggest battles of your life.
Clarity. Know what you’re going in for. Training will be rigorous. You’re not training to fight your fellow sheep. You’re going to fight an army of predatory lions. They are loud and aggressive. They hunt by nature. They hunt the likes of you for food. You are no match for them in speed or skills. Under the leadership of one of them, you can learn how to fight against them and prevail. It will not be easy. It will not be quick. But it is possible if you survive the training and learn as intended.
Capabilities. You have skills and cognition that the world may not consider much but are invaluable for survival. Remember that a war looms by an army of unequals. You will stretch and be stretched as a sheep in training under a lion leader. You have sufficient capabilities to start boot camp. Learn to finetune and adapt your skills. Learn to strengthen your weaknesses. Stay focused on the formidable skills you need and seek. Grow your capabilities so you’ll be able to coordinate with others to prevail in battle.
Cooperation. Life in a sheep pen and out grazing under the watchful eyes of shepherds does not necessarily prepare you for a fight with predatory aggressors who roam the wilds for survival. Remember you’re a sheep training to fight lions. Sheep are not natural leaders and lions are not natural followers. Some of your training instructions will not make sense to you initially. Each may be able to step out of their comfort zones with leading and following their own specie, but that may not be easily transferable to followership of other species. In spite of your differences, you will need to work with your leader and team members to get the full benefits of your training. Don’t mess it up.
Competence. The right training, done right, is an invaluable benefit. Training under a lion leader can equip you with skills that you may not be able to get any other way. This proverb assures that it leads to success over the more powerful army of lions. Beyond the battle, your lion-fighting skills will be transferable to other ventures. Chabrias said it first in the 4th century. We repeat it in the 21st century because we have seen its incongruity play out in real life in different scenarios. Outlast the training. Outlast the battle. Enjoy the rest of your life with the competence you gained and the confidence that gives.
By nature, lions are predators and sheep are prey. Yet being a sheep should not banish you to a life of cowering in fear because lions prowl menacingly around. Also, by nature, lions fight, and sheep flee. Yet, with the right leader, a rightly trained army of sheep can defeat an army of lions. What can you accomplish with the right training, the right leader, and in the right army?
Have additional insights on this part of the proverb to share? Or perhaps a personal experience? An interpretation of a scenario where an army of sheep defeated an army of lions?
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