A few years ago, I met a man by the name of Stephen Fear.
Stephen was 15 when he left school to start his first business. The trouble was that he needed a phone and, on the council estate in Bristol where he lived, nobody could afford a phone. So he stuck an ‘out of order’ sign on the red telephone box at the end of the road and turned that into his office.
After a while, he got friendly with the operator and persuaded her to pretend to be his secretary, so that he could talk an American cleaning products firm into making him their European distributor.
By the age of 20, he’d made his first million. Pretty focused.
Stephen Fear is now a multi-billionaire who owns more than 60 businesses. He also enjoys the rather exotic title of ‘entrepreneur in residence’ at the British Library, a role which sees him act as mentor to a wide range of budding new businesses.
One of the first things he does is to tell them this story.
A female leopard, out hunting to feed her young, will sit for hours perfectly still, watching her prey and waiting for the perfect moment to pounce.
However hot or tired or hungry or uncomfortable she becomes, the leopard will not move, will not shift her eyes, not even for one second – because, in that second, the perfect moment may be lost.
Flies buzz around her head; the leopard doesn’t move. The flies get bolder, edge closer and eventually land on her face; the leopard doesn’t move. The flies start sucking the water from inside the lids of her eyes; the leopard doesn’t move.
For hours – days, sometimes – the leopard forces herself to ignore a series of almost unimaginably torturous and uncomfortable distractions without once shifting her gaze. All she’s allowing herself to think about is catching a meal. Because, if she doesn’t, her cubs will starve.
None of the budding entrepreneurs mentored by Stephen Fear is likely to have starving children, but they all get the point. If you want your business to succeed, you have to cultivate that same leopard focus.
The trouble is that, as any business grows, it’s likely to become more complex, which makes it harder to stay focused on one thing. People get so caught up in executing detailed processes that they lose sight of why they’re doing it in the first place. They make bad decisions.
That’s why Stephen Fear keeps telling the people he’s mentoring about the leopard.
So they’ll stop getting distracted and focus their attention on the one thing that really matters.