Are You Willing to Face the Tiger? How Entrepreneurs Continually Rise to the Challenge.
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It’s nearing the end of May 2020, a global health crisis has kept much of the U.S. at home for almost two months now, and people have been in desperate need of a good distraction. Zoom parties, “quaranbaking,” and, of course, the hit Netflix docuseries Tiger King have all been welcome forms of entertainment.
With economists from the IMF already projecting that the coronavirus’s economic toll will be the worst downturn since the Great Depression, Tiger King is perhaps an unexpected source of business inspiration. (Spoiler alert: It takes place at a perennially cash-strapped roadside zoo—just one reason why.) And yet, each scene that shows one of Joe Exotic’s zookeepers dutifully stepping into the tigers’ cage holds a lesson for entrepreneurs wanting to build businesses resilient enough to weather both this current crisis and the next.
You have to be willing to face the tiger.
For business leaders, tigers come in many forms. They may be a crisis stemming from a natural phenomenon or they may be a financial, technological, or ethical crisis. Whatever the cause, the important point is that the entrepreneur who wants not just to survive, but to thrive, is willing to confront the biggest challenges facing his or her business head-on.
Downplaying the risk—or worse, turning your back on the danger altogether—is a one-step recipe for disaster. In fact, it’s just asking to be eaten.
Not facing the tiger means missing out on the opportunities that are inherent in nearly every crisis. Crises create big shifts in the market. They alter consumer behavior, sometimes permanently. When left unconfronted, those missed opportunities may play right into the hands of competitors. Failing to recognize crisis-related market shifts runs the risk of your business becoming expendable, your brand being perceived as irrelevant, your bottom line going the way of Sears, Blockbuster or RadioShack.
In that sense, facing the tiger is not too far afield from Amazon’s “Day 1 Mentality.” Amazon’s CEO, Jeff Bezos, is a big proponent of treating every day at work as if it’s the very first day at a new startup. There’s a special alertness on Day 1. With no laurels to rest on, everyone’s eager to impress, solve problems, make a big impact. In fact, this mentality is so integral to Amazon’s operations that they’ve named the main office building of Amazon’s Seattle headquarters “Day 1.”
Just like facing the tiger, the Day 1 Mentality keeps practitioners on its toes, in a constant state of evolution, mindful of emerging market possibilities and business potential. It’s customer-obsessed, asking how large-scale trends are shaping wants and needs, and invites accelerated decision making in order to meet those wants or needs. While common business sense says that every company should know its core strength, the Day 1 Mentality stresses that a core business strength may yet have unrealized applications.
The nimbleness to adjust one’s business according to a shifting landscape is just one benefit of facing the tiger. Here are three more:
Proactive, not reactive
Facing the tiger means being prepared for the worst. While it may sound pessimistic, even grim, to game-plan for disastrous contingencies, it helps your organization stay creative when the proverbial mess hits the fan. Crisis mode, by definition, is a sort of tunnel vision, triggered by fear, that can only focus on eliminating the immediate threat. The willingness to scan the horizon for threats and prepare for them in advance, before an actual emergency causes creative thinking to shut down, allows organizations to keep more options at their disposal when the time comes.
Comfortable with vulnerability
Facing the tiger means being both aware and honest about one’s weaknesses, on both a personal and organizational level. Traditionally, vulnerability has been considered a liability for leaders, though more and more that notion is being challenged. On the contrary, many psychologists are pointing to the increased effectiveness of leaders comfortable with vulnerability. Leaders that demonstrate vulnerability are perceived as more authentic and are thus able to inspire and build bonds with members of their team, reducing hierarchy in ways that encourage better performance.
Have you ever realized how “conflict-avoidance” is one of the surest ways to guarantee conflict? Minor issues, left unchecked, metastasize into full-blown business emergencies. It’s the “stitch in time” phenomenon.
A healthier approach is to develop a zeal for facing challenges as soon as they appear, as this anecdote from the world of real tigers suggests:
In the Sundarbans region of India, a fertile delta ecosystem along the border with Bangladesh, tiger-human relations are so perilous that more than 3,000 “tiger widows”—wives who have lost a spouse to a tiger attack—reside here. At one point in the 1980s, tigers were claiming the lives of villagers who venture into the forests for work at a rate of more than one per week.
At least, that was until villagers found a way to face the tigers. Knowing that tigers are a predator that prefers attacking its prey from behind, villagers began wearing a mask on the back of their heads, so that they can always be facing any tiger lurking their way. By facing the tigers, the number of attacks dropped dramatically.
Because sometimes, when you’re willing to face the tiger, the tiger blinks and walks away.