The Leader as a Lion…or a Fawn

I don’t know exactly how this came to be, but one day at church, my fellow 10-year old acquaintance, Jeff, decided that he would greet me by grinding the thick, heavy heel of his dress shoe down on the top of my foot. His little horseplay would usually leave me hopping around on one foot.

But I didn’t retaliate. Instead, I did this “turn the other cheek” thing I had heard about, I forget exactly where.

And week after week like clock-work, Jeff kept coming out of nowhere and stomping the living crap out of my foot each week as if I had somehow signed up for this whole routine.

Like a Lion

Eventually, I ran out of cheeks, and I snapped.

I spied Jeff out of the corner of my eye sneaking up on me. Then I lifted my leg like a professional pitcher going into a wind-up, estimated the distance to his foot down below, and launched my heel squarely on the very tip of his shoe, which produced an audible popping sound as hard-plastic met soft leather and bone. He lifted his foot off the ground while his mouth formed an O big enough to fit an ice cream cone inside, and then I did another wind-up and came crashing down with all of my weight on his other foot.

Jeff finally toppled, falling to the ground. With three broken toes.

I bullied the bully. And I won.

Sort of.

I felt terrible immediately afterwards, because my mom pulled me by my right ear (the next time you see me, check it out. My right ear is significantly longer than my left one) into the Women’s room. To make my humiliation complete, she spanked me with her hand. In the Women’s room. At church. With other women present.

The Wrong Action Can Be Worse Than No Action

Never again did I use the heel of my dress shoe for evil. Beyond that very specific lesson, I started learning on that day something that I would need to revisit time and again as a leader when people wronged me, maligned me, gossiped about me, or verbally attacked me. Instead of reacting like a lion, I would need to act like a lamb. Or maybe more…

Like a Fawn

On her walk the other evening, my niece happened to notice what she thought was a duck sitting in the tall grass behind our home. Walking closer, she noticed that the “duck” had tall ears, a black nose, and spots. She was looking at a newborn fawn.

Fawns can’t defend themselves with teeth, strength, or intimidation. They can’t run fast, if at all. No, fawns have other unique characteristics to help them survive: camouflage that allows them to blend into tall grass, no scent that would attract predators, and going limp–meaning they move almost not at all.

For nearly 20 hours, the fawn hid in plain sight, not moving or responding as cars, people, and dogs went by. And because of the defense strategies used by the fawn, she survived until her mother returned to her.

Fawn-Like Leadership

It’s not easy practicing a fawn-like level of meekness unless, of course, you are an actual fawn and have no choice in the matter.

Here are two things that I am still trying to master in having the meekness of a fawn as a leader:

1. Keep a low profile.

I recently spoke at a conference in Arizona for a very successful home healthcare company. At cocktail hour, the company’s founder entered wearing a polo shirt with the company logo on it, a shirt just like the ones worn by 60% of the attendees at the party. He didn’t sport Armani or a Rolex (I checked). In fact, had I not already known him, I would never have suspected that he was the “big boss.”

Do you remember what happened in the Revolutionary War when the British soldiers showed up wearing bright red coats? To the American sharpshooters, the red coats looked like little bullseyes!

Too many immature leaders spend more time poofing their manes—i.e., trying to look the part of the king-of-the-corporate-jungle—instead of leading with humility and meekness. And where does that get them, especially in times of criticism? Seeking validation in the trappings of leadership, many times they pop their heads up conspicuously like a whack-o-mole when they should seek to blend in.

2. Silence is golden.

Do you remember what Hilary Clinton said to her critics who accused her of potential wrongdoing around the “Benghazi cover-up, email-gate, and the Clinton Foundation pay-for-special-treatment scandals”? She said nothing. Nada. In the words of the Spiritual sung around the country on Good Friday, “Not a word.”

Is she guilty? Shouldn’t she silence her critics “if she’s really innocent”? Between truth and lies you’ll find politics, and my point is not about the character of Hillary Clinton or the merits of her critics. Rather, I admire her fawn-like silence in the face of hostility.

Years ago someone made an accusation about me that ended up on the desk of my boss to deal with. He called me in and asked me if I had done what had been attributed to me.

“No! That’s crazy! Who said that?” I demanded, wounded and sharpening my claws to pounce.

He said some wise things to me that went something like this: “If it’s not true, don’t worry about it. I’ve forgotten it already. Someone saying something bad about you doesn’t make it so. Ignore it.”

There was a time when I would have broken someone’s toes for far less. But he was right. I didn’t use my “position of power” to try to get even with the person I thought who might have come after me with false accusations. I didn’t ask around to try to find the person. Instead, I stayed quiet. And I let it go.


The lion makes a lot of noise and attracts a lot of attention. For some leaders, that’s how they choose to lead. That’s their niche. But when it comes to responding to criticism and attacks, sometimes it’s the fawn who lives to lead another day.

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