Real Leaders

How Trophy Hunting Perverts Leadership

Do you think trophy hunting is only a problem for innocent lions in Africa? Think again. We’re doing to animals exactly what we sometimes do to ourselves. It makes us very small leaders, compared to what we could be if we stopped competing for trophies.

Javier is a human trophy I know especially well. He’s always been very handsome. He holds several nobility titles, which places him within the very special, highly coveted elite in Europe. You can imagine how women swarm around him. He married the smartest, most strategic –and beautiful, of course! – princess of them all. His life looks like a Disneyland fairytale where everybody smiles, looks great in bikinis and swim trunks on yachts, rubbing shoulders with other handsome and influential Barbies and Kens from diverse social groups. They’re the picture of success. Although, something’s amiss.

Javier’s eyes often go blank. Very often. He’s developed an amazing talent to deviate a conversation away from himself, to escape undetected into his own hidden world of freedom. And this, my friends, is the smallest fact overlooked by most – a crack in the perfection that betrays the fact that all is not what it seems.

Javier is a trophy. He was raised to be a trophy, just like those tame lions who are secretly sold for canned hunting, as described in the new movie Blood Lions. He is hunted daily by men and women, who want to put a piece of his handsome aristocracy on their walls. Having been raised to smile and respond positively, Javier plays right into the hands of these savvy hunters.

Javier may end up being another tragic story of destruction through a lack of awareness. He doesn’t see or feel the wild lion that he is, underneath all that tame, well-behaved protocol. His loved ones love him as long as he keeps playing the game, keeps bringing prizes home, making them look good, smiling and submitting to what they need from him. They love his historically pure-bred exquisiteness so much, that they fail to notice his empty, absent eyes.

The small crack in this Disneyland family game, however, has been growing silently, slowly, almost imperceptibly. I take some credit in this, though Javier might say I’m the witch in his fairytale. I started asking questions. I gave feedback. I remained silent when his eyes went blank until he returned to the conversation, which he obviously found very annoying. He denied everything. Like many animal activists, I fought his denial. Eventually I learned that fighting isn’t the way to go if you want to raise awareness. The only thing that raises awareness is light. And time. Lots of time. Exasperating amounts of time. Light will find its way through the cracks naturally, if we allow it.

Everybody tells me I’m wrong. Everybody sees him as a silly, selfish, good-looking trophy husband and prize-winner who basks in his own glory. Women compete with each other for this attention. Brands grant him awards to get a photo of him in their corporate colors, shaking hands with their top executives in the press. Because this is what we do all day long – we compete for things.

This is what we’re taught as young children:

“Work hard. Try harder. Be smarter. Network the right people. Get Javier on your shortlist of closest friends. Give him free stuff. Invite him to your parties. Buy his products. Flatter him a little. Even better, flatter him a lot. Do him favors. Cuddle him like you would cuddle a lion cub until he walks right into your arms and can’t give up your comforting hands. Then show him off to the world and receive rightful praise. You truly must be the smartest and most beautiful of them all. Look in your mirror and ask again. Congratulations! Now others will compete to get closer to you too!”

On paper Javier is a leader. He started his own company, then ran it into the ground in a very elegant and aristocratic way. That kind of blew a few holes in his untainted Disneyland décor of success, happiness and perfection. He started a new company that now gives his owners what they want, while he can fly away to do what he loves, unbeknownst to all. This one seems to be doing well. At least on paper.

I met him when he was the only person who hadn’t yet realized that his first company was dead. It was horrible. He was in pain. Not only was he failing to bring home the prizes the entire family expected of him, he was beginning to actually feel something real – instead of manipulation, photogenic lovey-dovey and happy-happy nonsense. To lose a company you’ve built tirelessly for fifteen years is like losing a child, it’s awful. It’s a huge wake-up call in life.

To lose a company you’ve built tirelessly for over fifteen years is like losing a son, it’s awful. It’s a huge wake-up call in life.

Five years on, I’ve shed a lot of light on the wild within Javier, like the wild lion, who is magnificent when you let it do what it does best. Everything we admire and dream about in wild animals is taken away from them when we jail them or force them under our will. Everything that could be admirable in our own animal selves is forced into silent submission by the instructions we receive from society to compete, succeed, win races: “Feel happy and deny all other feelings. Smile Godammit!”

Because everybody in his life wants something from him, Javier suspects I too want to use him. I too was raised in a similar society, and yes, I did what everybody else did when we met. I too unknowingly played the hunting game. I felt very frustrated because I had no interest in the prizes, the titles or the handsomeness. I was taken by a challenge to uncover a mysterious wild beauty in him. He was the perfect trap for a leadership coach like me, who brings light into the darkest, most loveless of places.

I often laugh at the fact that learning to ride a horse as an adult was my most enlightening initiation into what true leadership is. Trying to coach the most un-coachable man I’ve ever met turned out to be even more so. He resisted me with such force that I was forced to look at myself in the mirror again and again. As I often find by learning from animals, I also received incredible insights in my battle against this mystery of a man.

As it turned out, he kicked all competitive and hunting tendencies right out of me. I slowly woke up to many of the deep truths about leadership that I regularly share at Real Leaders. It took a long time and it hurt like hell. We don’t become wise by sitting in bliss.

We don’t become wise by sitting in bliss.

I really hope Javier’s wildest self does break free from the chains of Disneyland. It must be hard to give up so much. Everybody he loves will resist violently to keep him tame inside a gold-plated cage. Society would label him a fool for giving up the glory we’re all supposed to be hunting for. If he does succeed, he will prove how incredibly superior wild passion is compared to our petty mind games. And once he’s free, deeply, truly free, he’ll be a hell of a leader. The kind our planet desperately needs: the might of a lion and the courage of a king.

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