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Zebras and Cheetahs Can Tame The 100-Pound Company Gorilla

There is a 10,000-pound gorilla in many companies.

This giant beast is known by a second name—culture.

Understanding and taming this force is imperative because its destructive behaviors can keep any company’s tribe from doing what it was brought together to do.

This is the thesis of Micheal Burt and Colby B. Jubenville, PhD who are the co-authors of Zebras & Cheetahs: Look Different and Stay Agile to Survive the Business Jungle

According to Burt and Jubenville, leaders who can successfully go nose to nose with culture gorillas are members of a newly evolving breed: Zebra and Cheetah (or Z&C) Leaders.

 “Zebra and Cheetah Leaders are so called because they exhibit qualities of both breeds,” comments Jubenville. “Like zebras, they boast a distinctive appearance that others can easily recognize. Like cheetahs, they possess great speed and are particularly quick accelerators. And like both, they have an ability to utilize their senses so well that they excel in adapting to their environments. In other words, these are leaders who are able to adapt to the fast-paced, always-changing, and highly competitive business world, and who are capable of leading diverse tribes within it.”

Zebra and Cheetah Leaders recognize that 10,000-pound gorillas are sustained by individuals who, unlike themselves, have refused to adapt to the ever-changing landscape of reality. Here, Burt and Jubenville share four things Z&C Leaders must do in order to stop feeding the gorilla…and create clarity amid the chaos of the concrete jungle:

Get real about the reality your tribe is facing. Chances are, the path the tribe once took through the jungle was wide, well marked, and free of most significant obstacles.

It is possible to count on easily visible indicators, typical benchmarks, and annual performance ratings to keep you going in the right direction. And if any doubt cropped up, the organization’s fearless leader—the lion-like king of the jungle—would dictate who should lead, who should follow, and what should be done.

To hear the change-averse gorilla tell it, that’s still an accurate portrayal of reality. But don’t let him fool you. According to Burt and Jubenville, “the good old days” are long gone.

“In today’s competitive, constantly changing global economy, organizations whose cultures expect the journey through the concrete jungle to be easy won’t last long,” Burt says. “These days, the path can quickly change, or disappear altogether. You might encounter rockslides or quicksand at any moment. And predators—otherwise known as competitors—will be constantly nipping at your heels.

“That’s why Z&C Leaders are committed to drawing a clear picture of the true, actual circumstances their organizations face, regardless of how positive or negative they may be. Only then will you be able to cut through the smokescreen your gorilla may be throwing up and unite your tribe in pursuit of an overarching dominant aspiration.”

Make sure the tribe understands the complex order of the concrete jungle. In nature, jungles are incredibly complex. They contain a dizzying amount of animals and plants that are competing for resources and survival. But despite (or in some cases, because of) the occasional casualty, the ecosystem supports the many populations that call it “home” and enables them to thrive.

Ideally, that’s the case within your organization, too. (Think about the corporate buzzword “synergy,” which refers to diverse individuals accomplishing more together than they could alone.)

However, it doesn’t matter how balanced and well calibrated the tribe is on paper if all of its members don’t understand where, how, and why they fit.

“It’s a natural instinct for people to worry about their futures,” comments Jubenville. “That’s why so often new ideas, policies, and people spark pushback in the concrete jungle. Established tribe members worry that they’re being edged out or that they’re entering the endangered species list. And that type of uncertainty feeds the gorilla. It’ll beat its chest, bellow, and attack what it mistakenly perceives to be the competition, effectively halting growth and progress.

“Remember, as a Z&C Leader, it’s imperative for you to not only leverage your tribe’s talents, but to make sure all of its members understand where they fit within your organization’s ecosystem, both now and in the future.”

Clearly define success. Once tribe members understand the order of the jungle they inhabit, Zebra and Cheetah Leaders must outline what, exactly, constitutes success.

Left to their own devices, each individual is likely to define that outcome differently, usually in whatever way would benefit them most personally. In this scenario, you’re likely to have some employees who mistakenly believe they’ve “made it,” while others struggle, strive, and snipe their way in the wrong direction.

“We refer to the force of a tribe working toward success as collective passion,” shares Burt. “Why? Well first, collective relates to the fact that everyone in the tribe is working together toward a shared dominant aspiration, or goal. The word passion has a double meaning. Its modern context involves deep affinity for something, and its Latin root passio means ‘to suffer.’

Create new levels of professionalism. Good news: This fourth step in overcoming chaos and keeping the company’s corner of the concrete jungle gorilla-free is the easiest. C&Zs will find that when the tribe’s members have collectively survived the crucible and reached the first level of success you’ve set for them, their relationships with each other will change.

“Specifically, competition within the tribe will naturally be replaced by new levels of cooperation once everyone sees what they’re all capable of accomplishing together,” promises Jubenville. “This will then allow the competitive focus to fall where it belongs: outside the tribe.

““There will always be chaos in the concrete jungle as a whole, but that doesn’t have to be the case within your specific organization,” concludes Burt. “When you succeed in kicking the gorilla out and getting your tribe members to trust their Zebra and Cheetah Leader, your organization will enjoy increased transparency, accountability, and productivity.”

Micheal Burt and Colby B. Jubenville, PhD are co-authors of Zebras & Cheetahs: Look Different and Stay Agile to Survive the Business Jungle. Burt is a former championship coach and the author of eight books. Jubenville holds an academic appointment at Middle Tennessee State University and is principal of Red Herring Innovation and Design (

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