Lessons in Leading Change I Learned From Elephants

Elephants are large animals standing up to 13 feet tall and weighing up to 15,000 pounds. It’s no wonder we associate our difficultty leading change with our inability to move an elephant.

My leadership team and I are finishing a study of the book Switch by Chip and Dan Heath.  In Switch, Chip and Dan describe the process of leading change in the picture of an elephant and its rider.

In short, the rider represents rational and logical thought and the elephant represents our emotional needs.  Leaders must address both sides by addressing the head of the rider by explaining the need for change while capturing the heart of the elephant so it desires the change.

My family and I had the opportunity to visit a family-run elephant preserve.   We observed the elephants interacting, exercising, performing and even painting a picture.  The preserve owners and trainers taught us the about the elephants and their individual personality and behavior.

Here is where the connection to the book Switch really hits home: we finished the day riding on top of one of the elephants – talk about an up close and personal life experience.

Here are the lessons in leading change I learned from elephants:

Leading change requires earning the trust of the team

The leader of the elephant family unit is not the most dominate.  The leader is the one who has earned the respect of the family through a history of problem solving and consensus building.  In the wild, the leader has successfully led the family unit on searches for food and water and kept them out of danger.

Leading change requires letting each member of the team use their diverse strengths

Each elephant accomplishes tasks differently.  In the preserve, elephants are allowed to develop their own method for accomplishing each new activity.  For example, the elephants are transported in a large custom-built trailer and each elephant steps into the trailer differently.

Leading change requires shared responsibility 

Elephants work together to accomplish tasks better than they can complete on their own.  In the wild, elephant families are observed sharing the responsibility for rearing the young calves among all adults.

Leading change requires believing that everyone wants to be successful

Elephants must be successful in the wild in finding food and water to survive.  In the preserve, the elephants are never rewarded with treats for accomplishing tasks.  Instead they are rewarded with a pat or rub, and kind words at each step in their learning process.