The Battle of Kruger: The Power of Us

by Stephen T. Messenger

December 14, 2021

“Talent wins games, but teamwork and intelligence win championships.”

–Michael Jordan

Nothing brings out the true heart of a group better than going to battle together. I recently heard of the Battle of Kruger Pass through an exceptional “From the Green Notebook” podcast.

Scott O’Neil, CEO of a number of professional sports teams and author of Be Where Your Feet Are, described organizational roles through the lens of an all-out South African animal brawl captured through a YouTube video in Kruger National Park.

I highly recommend you pick up his book where this master storyteller describes the battle and other leadership concepts in detail.

In an eight-minute tourist video which you should watch before reading further, a herd of water buffalo approach a small body of water oblivious to a pride of lions crouching in wait. As they get within striking range, one lion attacks the smallest water buffalo, and the lion’s momentum flips them both into the water. The buffalo herd scatters as the other lions pounce on the helpless calf.

While they feast on their prize, a crocodile slinks out of the water and grabs the calf creating a tug of war with the lions. He tries in vain to steal the snack, but the lions drag their kill up upon the shoreline away from the crocodile.

The excited tourists from the safe side of the water narrate the entire event saying things like, “I’ve never seen anything like this” and excitedly shouting “The lions have won!”

As the lions settle in to eat, an amazing phenomenon happens. The scared and scattered water buffalo approach the lions together. They stand shoulder to shoulder and slowly approach their struggling calf. You can tell they’re unsure of themselves, but in lockstep, find the courage to move closer.

The group use their horns and force the lions to let go of their calf. They bring their teammate back into the fold and proceed to chase the lions away.

It’s a fascinating video to watch and a glimpse into organizational behavior. There are four types of characters, and each behaves a certain way whether in the African plain or in the workplace.

So, Scott O’Neil asks, who do you want to be?

The Lion. The lion is typically someone of importance in the organization but preys on the weak when he smells blood. This person walks around the office looking to tear someone’s head off. He sees something wrong and pounces on random people when things aren’t going his way. He shows little compassion and could care less about what’s going on in anyone else’s world.

The Crocodile. This leader loves to kick someone when they’re down. “Did you see how abysmal the other division’s numbers were this month?  I wonder if there’s an opening in that department.” The crocodile takes advantage of other’s misfortunes and instead of helping them up, he tears their leg off. A crocodile loves other’s misfortune.

The Tourist. These people sit on the sidelines and talk a lot with little action. They’re the bandwagon. When things are going well, they cheer and holler.  When things are going bad, they sit back and point fingers. They watch when others are tackling the hard problems. They watch even more when others work on easy problems like when the boss is the one putting out a fire that he should delegate.

To be fair, at times I’ve been every one of the above types of people in my home and work. We all have moments of weakness where we act in ways we don’t want to. Hopefully they’re just that—moments and not a way of life. But even better, we should strive to be the fourth type.

The Water Buffalo. This group of people understand the “Power of Us.” They know that only by mobilizing the team’s full efforts will they be successful. They band together and share ideas, leverage strengths, offset weaknesses, and feed off each other.

The Water Buffalo always works in the herd. They stand shoulder to shoulder and tackle any problem in front of them, together. They know when you harness the full power of the herd, only then can an organization reach its full potential.

The good news is that most people want to be a water buffalo. You have to find those exhibiting lion, crocodile, and tourist behavior and coach them to join the herd.

This is not just a workplace analogy. I showed this video to my family to talk about how we all act in our house.  

Scott O’Neil finishes his story by saying if you want to be successful in the sports business, “Work unreasonably hard, be intellectually curious, and be an extraordinary teammate.  Be the purple water buffalo.”

Pick up his book for so many other great leadership stories and as to why the water buffalo is purple.

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