The Magic of Today's New Unicorn Leader

04/09/2015 06:43 pm ET | Updated Jun 09, 2015

Human beings are social animals. Like packs of wolves, prides of lions, pods of dolphins, herds of elephants, troops of baboons, and flocks of birds, we humans are designed to live and work together in groups. We organize ourselves to work in corporations, small businesses, governments, and non-profit organizations. Like other pack animals, we are naturally hierarchical and acutely status-conscious about our place in the pecking order. And we are a highly intelligent species -- always eager to learn from other animals because, after all, it's a dog-eat-dog world.

Years ago, Harvey Mackay taught us how to swim with sharks without getting eaten alive. Then Ken Blanchard demonstrated the power of positive reinforcement in building positive relationships with whales. Spencer Johnson pointed out how smart mice are -- and how dumb humans are -- when the cheese disappears. David McNally reminded us that even eagles need a push sometimes. Milton Olson and Angeles Arrien enumerated five leadership lessons from geese. And my own business book about peacocks and penguins cautions against the conformity and group-think of penguins, while celebrating the creativity of diversity that peacocks and other colorful birds bring to the flock.

Today, a new animal has arrived in the corporate jungle -- the unicorn. The unicorn is a mythical creature. Strong, wild, and fierce, it cannot be tamed by man. Pliny, the Roman naturalist, described the unicorn as "a very ferocious beast, similar in the rest of its body to a horse, with the head of a deer, the feet of an elephant, the tail of a boar, a deep, bellowing voice, and a single black horn, two cubits in length, standing out in the middle of its forehead."


But today, the unicorn is no longer a myth -- it is a reality. It has stepped off the pages of ancient literature and into the executive suite. It has come at the behest of inventors and investors, who want more than solid results and good returns. Don't bother them with slow and steady -- they want it all and they want now. They dream BIG ... longing to become legends in their own time. They want magic ... and magic means unicorns!

How can you spot a unicorn? What qualities distinguish him from narwhals and other imposters in the corporate jungle?

Recent sightings from Silicon Valley tell us that the UNICORN Leader ...

Unleashes the imagination, creativity & talent of everyone at all levels.

Never says anything is "impossible."

Inspires rabid loyalty and fanatical commitment in fans and followers.

Conspires with tech gods to make magic happen.

Opens up new publishing possibilities for business journalists, authors, and consultants.

Requires you to suspend disbelief ... Unwavering faith in unicorns is all that's necessary.

Needs to prove that his magic horn is bigger than yours.

The unicorn is an archetypal creature, present in both eastern and western mythology. The elegant fierceness of the unicorn makes him the perfect visionary leader for today's business world. Unicorn companies, in today's parlance, rise to massive value very quickly - and it is a special brand of leadership that makes this happen. It means unleashing imagination, instilling hope, and dreaming the impossible - and yes, a bit of magic.

Legend has it that only a virgin who was naked sitting beneath a tree can catch the unicorn. The unicorn, who craves purity, is irresistibly drawn to the girl. He lies down with his head in the virgin's lap and she gently strokes the elusive beast, lulling him to sleep. At that point he is vulnerable to capture by a hunter.

Hence, the unicorn is understandably wary of women. Feminine beauty and sensuality are distractions from his mission. A female could be his undoing and he instinctively knows it. The unicorn likes to think of himself as a noble beast who always does the right thing - but his subconscious fear of females drives him to avoid them in the workplace.

Topping off the unicorn's many powers, his horn - the alicorn - has great medicinal powers. He can use it to transform any poisonous substance into a harmless substance. Likewise, the Unicorn Leader can neutralize a bad situation with simply the touch of his magical horn. He knows the solution to any business problem is simply to amp up his testosterone.

The mythological unicorn is a symbol of chivalry, with qualities befitting his status - proud and untamable. His white coloring symbolizes purity, virtue, and integrity. But white is not just the color of his hide - it is also proof of his natural nobility, purity of purpose, and righteousness.

This purity of breed may be changing, however, as diversity creeps slowly into boardrooms and corner offices. In fact, there have been reported sightings of a few dark unicorns in Silicon Valley - such as Ragy Thomas of Sprinklr. Fiercely devoted to diversity, he describes his leadership style as ... "chasing a different rainbow." We may see more of this horse of a different color in coming months and years.

The Era of the Unicorn has arrived. Enough with the ancient sharks, cumbersome whales, flighty geese, out-of-touch eagles, silly mice, and stuffy, bureaucratic, short-sighted penguins. It's time for the Unicorn Leader!


Berrett-Koehler Editor Neal Maillet, Associate Editor Anna Leinberger, and Digital Producer/Editor Charlotte Ashlock contributed to this satirical piece. Berrett-Koehler author BJ Gallagher's latest book is the 20th anniversary edition of her diversity classic, "A Peacock in the Land of Penguins: A Fable About Creativity and Courage."

(Unicorn graphic:; Unicorn quote: Peacock Productions; used with permission)