An early precursor to the modern-day “business and personal development” book was Machiavelli’s The Prince, in which you find the “fox and the lion” meme. For Machiavelli, they were metaphors for mindsets you should adopt as a ruler. Intimidating like a lion, perceptive like a fox. Of course, he suggests you adopt both mindsets.
“… choose the fox and the lion; because the lion cannot defend himself against snares and the fox cannot defend himself against wolves. Therefore, it is necessary to be a fox to discover the snares and a lion to terrify the wolves.”
Whenever you find the lion and fox pairing in anything you’re reading or watching, it almost always derives from the passage above rather than from Aesop’s Fables or the Bible.
I’m not so concerned with ruling a feudal state though, or ruling any else besides yourself, for that matter.
Business writers use the lion and fox to talk about ruling over workforces or navigating workforce politics.
I’m going to use it to answer the question people ask me, how do you become an independent consultant? This essay tries to answer that question while also recognizing its variant: how do you become an independent freelancer?
So we’re talking about the fox-and-lion in the context of:
- indie consulting and entrepreneurship, especially with respect to
- sales and marketing
And we’re assuming you already have economically valuable skill – so while that is a prerequisite to becoming independent, I don’t address it here.
Here’s what I think and this is also the essay’s tldr: sell like a lion, market like a fox.
But how specifically? By doing really hard things that you are afraid of over and over. I explain below.
Scientifically speaking, I don’t know any more about lions than Machiavelli did, apart from casually watching nature shows. I see why they have a reputation for bravery, as they fend off packs of menacing jackals, protecting themselves or hoarding the carcasses of their fallen prey. Either that, or these nature shows have great film editors?
I also see that lions are often hungry, literally. A few days full, but most days very hungry. Moreover, they’re hungry and desperate – eat or die; they have little safety net or job market to fall back on.
To become an independent consultant who actually sells, you have to be hungry like this. This is especially true for anyone who has no paycheck/workplace consulting background, or MBA network, and thus fewer connections.
Most “outsider” indie strategy consultants bootstrap into it by freelancing: selling skills in the form of custom services gigs. They may have plenty of word-of-mouth demand for skills, but probably less for strategy, which is essentially what a consultant sells (or more commonly, some blend of skills and strategy). That has to be fought for.
And this is where the lion in you comes in..
- Effortful, at least in sporadic high-energy bursts
The last is the most important. You must manufacture an excess of nearly-absurd self-confidence in the value of your professional skills or strategic thinking. You have to know that you’re the best option available. It’s like Damian Lillard knowing he is the best basketball player on the court, even when playing against Lebron James. It’s not rational, it’s an attitude thing.
And that’s how you get started selling.
But is it enough? Not even close.
Once you know how to adopt the lion, you make a hard change and become the fox.
This is partly because you can’t be a hungry lion forever. We’re not wired that way. We’re group animals who have always found new ways of acquiring calories and other forms of wealth.
Secondly, lions only go so far in business – once people learn your act, the hunger, effort, and persistence become easier to thwart.
Most important part first: the fox writes.
And not only that, but the fox publishes what they write. As a writer, the fox is the marketer to the lion’s sales closer, but also:
- the consultative seller
- the creator of new ideas about what and how to sell
- the one who sells ideas
- the one who attracts new opportunities
But as Machiavelli suggests, you must adopt both animals’ postures. The courage of the lion lets the fox write without training in how to do so. Ego? Forget it and sacrifice it. Never looking stupid? Forget it. Never repeating yourself? Never boring anyone, never making someone disagree with you, never annoying someone? The lion-hearted fox is brave enough not to care about any of that.
In the ambitiously titled, The Lords of Strategy: The Secret Intellectual History of the New Corporate World, author Walter Kiechel profiles one of the pioneers of what I call “manufacturing strategy consulting”, Bruce Henderson. Henderson was an iconoclastic, brainy academic and the founder of Boston Consulting Group. Kiechel reveals that during BCG’s first 10 years, Henderson wrote over 400 articles, much like a hyper-productive tenured professor might. He had an editor (1 of the first 6 full-time BCG employees) but he wrote all those articles himself.
This was unheard of in that era and is still rare – to publish almost 1 substantive article per week over a decade is unusual for any individual. Compare that to the McKinsey Quarterly, founded in 1964 possibly in response to Henderson’s weekly journal begun in 1963 – Henderson alone published 10 times as many essays as McKinsey did journals.
Bruce Henderson was by all accounts a lion but he was definitely a fox.
Along with McKinsey, and BCG-offshoot Bain, his business went on to do “great things” – their collective historical legacy will be helping corporate, globalist America cleverly undo FDR’s social democratic America piece by piece. And get stinking rich doing so. Few foxes ever stole more eggs from the henhouse. (Quite the “secret intelligentsia”, eh?)
Maybe you want to do more than steal eggs, but Henderson set a good example for any consultant of the effectiveness of a writing practice. It set in stone his reputation as a left-brained intellectual and let him become widely known beyond his company and customer base – in this way it was an excellent content marketing strategy.
Henderson’s publishing practice didn’t preclude him staying hungry, persistent, bold – on the contrary, it complimented those traits nicely.
There’s one more thing that foxes do that lions don’t: specialize in specific kinds of opportunities. When family farms died out, and henhouses with them, foxes had to move on to campgrounds. How do they steal the Clif bar from the North Face rucksack? By specializing. And the more they write about it, the more ideas they get for how to do that well.
To anyone starting out, be a fox cub first. And a lion cub. And by starting out, I mean leveling up:
- moving from paycheck land, skills in hand, to kill-what-you-eat land
- moving from selling skills to selling a hybrid of skills-and-strategy
- moving from selling skills-and-strategy to selling products
- moving from selling skills-and-strategy to selling pure strategy
This means practice selling and marketing the next thing while still making money from the current thing. Pretty straightforward advice.
I also know people who have made all of these jumps without a publishing practice to speak of. That’s fine but it’s hard mode and it’s going to get harder – especially for those of you in bucket (a).
So practice writing and publishing something frequently before you quit your job. Think you’d rather podcast or make videos than write?
Smile, you’re still in the writing business (:
Those great video essays on by your Favorite YouTuber? They are written. Same for podcasts.
Ah, but what about those great interview format podcasts with “spontaneous” conversation? Yes, it is spontaneous (well, sometimes) but the conversational matter trades on ideas developed through writing practices on the part of both host and guest. Joe Rogan was a standup comic who wrote his material. Most of his guests? Similar story.
In short, the fox cub publishes so they can grow up to be a real fox. 100 published pieces of content totaling 50,000 words in a year isn’t a bad goal.
And the lion cub moonlights. Jason Fried sold newspapers at 10 but if you didn’t have early sales experience, you must sell something (ideally your skills or content) on the side while still holding down a job.
In Malcolm Gladwell’s Talking to Strangers, he laments that we talk to strangers in fear. According to the data that Gladwell analyzes and presents in the book, US police kill so many people unnecessarily for this very reason. He encourages an institutional shift away from fear of strangers towards trust and goodwill for strangers (along with and end to gotcha-policing that penalizes technicalities).
In the same way, both the lion and fox cubs have to overcome the fear of speaking to strangers. You market to strangers, you sell to strangers. Some of them you will get to know, some will become clients, friends, partners, etc.
It takes great courage to call strangers on the phone. But then it gets easier. It’s not a great business development technique, but it is great for lion-training. The same is true of publishing online.
Of course, the fear never really goes away. That’s just part of being a fox and a lion.
To your success,