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Every time I hear about the success story of entrepreneurs such as IT business, not to mention Apple, Microsoft, and Soft Bank founders, an old Japanese saying, 鶏口となるとも牛後となる勿れ‐“(Choose to) be the mouth of a cock rather than ending up as the tail of an ox,” comes to my mind.

I understand this maxim was imported from Chinese saying, “寧為鶏口、勿為牛後 – ning wei ji kou wu nju hou” (If I quote wrong, please correct) which has the exactly same meaning.

The mouth of a cock and the tail of an ox are compared to the leader or owner of small company / organization (with a big prospect for growing up as a big company in the end) and just common office workers of big companies.

Are there any equivalent English sayings that encourage someone who is ambitious enough to start up his / her own company or challenging new business by spinning out from their old organization?

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There's also an equivalent Hebrew statement - "better to be the head of foxes than the tail of lions". –  Avner Shahar-Kashtan Jul 11 at 7:57
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@AvnerShahar-Kashtan actually, the original Hebrew source is the reverse: והוי זנב לאריות ואל תהי ראש לשועלים, better to be the tail of lions then the head of foxes. Mishna, Avos 4:15. For explanation see the commentary of Rabbenu Yonah. –  Aryeh Leib Taurog Jul 11 at 11:54
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I misread the title of the question; I really need to get my mind out of the gutter. –  IQAndreas Jul 11 at 15:38
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We have a similar saying in America: "Like a boss" –  Boss Jul 11 at 15:58
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@Boss "like a boss" doesn't exactly mean that. It is quite a different thing, actually. It's about the attitude someone is having while dealing with any kind of thing, it's not a business advice. –  Lohoris Jul 13 at 16:53

9 Answers 9

up vote 44 down vote accepted

The following comes to mind:

Better to be a big fish in a little pond than a little fish in a big pond.

Although for 鶏口となるも牛後となるなかれ, http://kotowaza-allguide.com/ke/keikoutonarumo.html gives the following, which I personally had never heard:

Better be the head of a dog than the tail of a lion.

Better be first in a village than second at Rome.

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@Curious-proofreader.Thanks to your input (Kotowaza Alguide com.) I leaned that the axiom, “寧為鶏口、勿為牛後” is from 苏秦列伝. (Chronicle of Sū Qín Dinasty) of 史記 (History) written by司马迁 - sī mǎ qiān (BC 139 - BC 86) from this source . It’s a great discovery to know that the phrase, “Be the mouth of a cock rather than ending up as the tail of an ox” has been on the mouth of people for more than 2100 years. –  Yoichi Oishi Jul 11 at 11:38
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I've never heard the kotowaza-allguide sayings before either. Big fish in a little pond is massively more common. –  KRyan Jul 11 at 14:42
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This may be more of a cultural than semantic distinction, but my impression is that the Chinese/Japanese saying is uniformly positive. This is NOT the case with the English "big fish in a small pond." The English phrase is often used in situations where it's implied that the small pond is limiting and the big pond is better--for example, you might say a high school athlete is a "big fish in a small pond"--he looks better than he is because his competition is weak. –  chapka Jul 11 at 16:44
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I have never heard nor seen “it is better to be a big fish in a small pond than a small fish in a big pond”, so I think this answer is more “synthesizing a parallel” from an English-language idiom than stating an equivalent idiom. Moreover, this synthetic parallel has the opposite sentiment to the actual English language idiom from which it is constructed: “Joe is a big fish in a small pond” is used pejoratively to imply that he has an inflated sense of self-importance, and that his actual talent, skills, or capabilities wouldn't survive fair comparison with a large peer group. –  Emmet Jul 11 at 23:39
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The "second in Rome" quote is attributed to Julius Caesar. –  nwellnhof Jul 13 at 14:09

It may seem like a long shot but consider the quote from Milton's Paradise Lost:

Better to reign in Hell, than serve in Heaven.

even though it may carry additional (sarcastic ?) meaning.

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In Book 11 of Homer's Odyssey when Odysseus goes down to the Underworld and meets Achilles (who, of course, had been a famous warrior and ruler of men), the latter speaks this famous line: "I’d rather serve as another man’s labourer, as a poor peasant without land, and be alive on Earth, than be lord of all the lifeless dead." I think it's safe to assume that Milton was responding to this (and there's a lot of intertexuality with Homer in Paradise Lost) with the quoted line he gives to Satan. –  user162097 Jul 11 at 13:50
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Interesting - I've heard exactly the opposite: "Better to serve in Heaven than to reign in Hell." –  Kevin Jul 11 at 17:00
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+1 for Milton. Milton is awesome. –  Soylent Green Jul 11 at 20:26
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@Kevin I would guess that, since the statement comes from Satan himself, Christians have inverted it, as they obviously do not agree with Satan. –  trlkly Jul 12 at 1:19

I have heard the expression "Better to live one day as a lion than spend a lifetime as a sheep" used in that context.

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I think this has a very different meaning. –  Lohoris Jul 13 at 16:56

To the extent that the original saying is about being in front (leading) versus being behind (and is about animals),

If you’re not the lead dog, the view never changes.

seems to fit.  It got nearly 100,000,000 hits on Google.

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It is often accomplished by the obvious illustration. –  Malvolio Jul 11 at 16:23
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Doesn't have anywhere near 100,000,000 hits on Google. I see 107,000 –  Martin Smith Jul 11 at 20:22
    
When I Google you the lead dog never changes I get “About 98,700,000 results”, including variants like “Unless you’re the lead dog, ….”, “If Yourre Not The Lead Dog ….”, “If you ain’t the lead dog ….” and even “if you ain the lead dog ….”, etc. Also, some end with “… the scenery never changes.” –  Scott Jul 11 at 21:01
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I think you misunderstand the figures there! Googling dog shows 360 million results. Googling dog view over 1 billion so that must be the number matching either of the terms. Not both of them. To search for phrases you need to use quotes. –  Martin Smith Jul 11 at 21:08
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I concede that Google search is inscrutable, but it looks like a search for the exact phrase, in quotes, finds none of the variants that I listed. These variants are clearly just trivially different ways of expressing (and even different ways of spelling) the saying, and, as such, I believe that they should count towards a measure of its popularity and recognition factor. Obviously, I didn’t look through all 98 million hits; some of them are probably just occurrences of one or two of the words. So perhaps a more meaningful number is one somewhere between yours and mine. –  Scott Jul 11 at 21:20

A common expression used to convey the concept is:

Better to be a leader than a follower:

In the business world, there are leaders and there are followers. Some people seem to have been born leaders and others develop leaderships skills over the years. There are many benefits to being a leader in your chosen professional field.

Source: http://www.insidebusiness360.com

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This doesn't contain the distinction between big and small organizations that's contained in the original expression. –  Barmar Jul 14 at 19:25

Here's a Romanian saying on the same subject:

"Better be outstanding in the village, than mediocre in the city"

or, in original Romanian:

"Mai bine fruntaş la sat decât codaş la oraş".

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Interesting. This Romanian saying very much resembles "Better first in village than second in Rome" cited by @CuriousProofreader. Possiblly came from the same root. –  Yoichi Oishi Jul 12 at 20:07

"Better to die on your feet than live on your knee."

"I would rather be a big fish in a little pond."

"Better a live dog than a dead lion."

(Each of these is occasionally reversed, according to taste.)

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It seems the third of those goes against the other two (and most of the other suggestions on this question) –  Kevin Jul 12 at 23:36
    
@Kevin -- yeah, each of them is reversible, but the third one is more often heard that way, dunno why. –  Malvolio Jul 13 at 3:13

I actually don't agree with the current, chosen answer.

The Why of It

"Be the mouth of a male-chicken than the tail of an ox", to me, means this:

Strive to be a leader, heard and respected by others, instead of being a forgotten, unimportant person

A male-chicken (that is, a cock, but I'd rather not refer to it as a cock) screams loudly every morning; everyone heeds the screams of a male-chicken, for it means a new day has come and everyone gets up from their bed; the tail of an ox is pretty much forgotten until it causes trouble

What Others Are Saying

I am simply telling my interpretations here:

Better to be a big fish in a little pond than a little fish in a big pond.

This actually means you should find worse people to hang around with instead of bettering yourself. For example, if your academic scores are average, you should go to a lower-ranking school filled with less-knowledgable students to make your scores relatively good. While this does carry a similar outcome (that is, you're seen as a leader instead of falling behind), this carries a negative meaning. Another interpretation would be that you should find a range you're comfortable with, but it's just a sugar-coating

Better to reign in Hell, than serve in Heaven.

This simply means that you should find a job you're happy with. Seriously, think about it: Satan didn't like having to do what God (his boss) told him to (serve in Heaven), so in spite he found a job he'd rather have: reign in Hell. When you strip out all the religious symbols, the meaning becomes simple and is actually pretty positive.

The closest one that I think should be the answer is @Josh61's

Better to be a leader than a follower

I just feel that the tail of an ox does not imply a "follower", instead more like an unimportant person

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"Rooster" is the word you may be looking for. American English prefers it while British English prefers "cock" for male chicken. –  Dennis Williamson Jul 30 at 16:45

Also of note as a related sentiment, though perhaps not as direct an equivalent as other answers presented herein, may be found in Shakespeare's Julius Caeser:

Cowards die many times before their deaths
The valiant never taste of death but once.

Julius Caeser, Act II, Scene II

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I'm afraid I don't see how this is even remotely equivalent. –  phenry Jul 11 at 18:24
    
Well, not equivalent, but as I indicated in my answer, a related sentiment. The original idiom appears to mean something like, "It's better to lead than follow, even if you're leading a small group vs. following in a large group." –  Promethean Jul 11 at 18:37
    
I hit enter too soon: continued... Also containing implicit nuances about the unpleasant proximity to an ox's anus. Caesar seemed to mean that the valiant live better, suffering only a single (albeit final) unpleasantness, while the less valiant (in the business context, workers rather than founders & entrepreneurs) may suffer both their own and their peers' slings & arrows. So, if the context is the wisdom of not fearing entrepreneurial action instead of office-dronedom, saying "It's better to lead than follow" could be replaced with "Valiant die only once, cowards many times." –  Promethean Jul 11 at 18:51

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