In times of plenty, it will abandon its bounty to the hyena. Exhausted from its 60 mph chase, it cannot embark on another contest - even a minor one. Besides, it knows that in a short while it will recover its strength ready to hunt another meal down. But in times of famine, the strategy changes: the cat will take on the hyena. It has nothing to lose - if it doesn't fight, it will starve anyway, and nine times out of 10 it will win.
Darwinism offers a ready metaphor for business. 'Survival of the fittest' is the contract cleaner to UK Plc, sweeping out the weak and nurturing the strong. The cheetah story tells us that stressed and hungry beasts, corporate or corporeal, are more ready to take a chance than fat, sated ones.
Fearing that success would make staff complacent at bubble-wrap business Sealed Air, CEO Dermot Dunphy borrowed nearly 90% of the firm's market value to pay a special dividend to shareholders. The recapitalisation created a crisis that forced internal change. By simulating famine, Dunphy replaced well-fed indolence with hunger and a need to innovate as the company fought to pay down the debt. His tactic worked: Sealed Air's sales now top $4 billion, with net profits at £255 million.
So if you are riding a wave of success - in gambling or the oil business, say - think what you'd do differently if times got tough and the hyenas were gathering. And if you're an ambitious business lower down the food chain, create the context for battle. Hyenas can beat cheetahs, too.
Jenny Harris is Young Businesswoman of the Year and director of JRBH Strategy & Management, www.jrbh.co.uk