A Rat, traveling on the highway, met a huge elephant, bearing his royal master and his suite, and also his favorite cat and dog, and parrot and monkey. The great beast and his attendants were followed by an admiring crowd, taking up all of the road. “What fools you are,” said the Rat to the people, “to make such a hubbub over an elephant. Is it his great bulk that you so much admire? It can only frighten little boys and girls, and I can do that as well. I am a beast; as well as he, and have as many legs and ears and eyes. He has no right to take up all the highway, which belongs as much to me as to him.” At this moment, the cat spied the rat, and, jumping to the ground, soon convinced him that he was not an elephant.
Because we are like the great in one respect we must not think we are like them in all.
— Aesop’s Fables: The Rat and the Elephant
Elephants have been admired, revered, and even worshiped from ancient times, particularly in Eastern cultures and religions. In Buddhism1, the elephant is a symbol of physical and mental strength, steadfastness and responsibility. Strong and powerful, they are able to overcome any obstacles that are placed in their way. Hindus worship the elephant for what it represents to them — obedience to the master’s call, the ability not to repeat past mistakes, and respect and care towards their peers.2
Studies of elephant behavior prove this reputation to be well-deserved.3 Elephants are very intelligent and have been shown to have exceptional long-term memory, rivaling that of dolphins and primates. They also have strong individual personalities and exhibit excellent social skills. They are able to communicate, learn from others, work cooperatively as teams, and problem-solve.4 Over time they build large, complex social networks.
The matriarch, typically the oldest and largest adult female, is the leader of the elephant herd. There are wise matriarchs whose leadership is acknowledged by the deference of the other members of the herd, and then there are poor matriarchs whose leadership role is tentative at best or even under challenge. As with humans, some elephants are natural born leaders who show strong leadership qualities from a young age, and others learn to lead slowly and steadily as they mature.
A wise elephant leader has strong leadership qualities in addition to the social and cognitive qualities of elephants in general as discussed above. Elephant leaders are confident and well-connected. They have earned the respect of others based on their wisdom, charisma, and track record of wise decision making in times of crisis. While they are the final decision maker in important matters, they do not typically micromanage and even when faced with making critical decisions are open to the suggestions of others, often even from junior members of the herd. Elephant leaders are compassionate towards and deeply care for the members of their extended family. They show courage in crisis and wisdom in difficult situations, and work extremely hard to maintain the bonds of their social network.
If you wondered when you started to read this article what elephants have to do with professional services leadership, I trust that you’ve caught on by now. Wise matriarchs are a perfect case study from nature in leadership excellence. I could have easily been talking about leadership in professional services, or the qualities of a strong leader in business, public service, spiritual leadership, or just life in general.
So do you practice elephant leadership on a daily basis? Do you exhibit the characteristics of the wise matriarch? If not, don’t be discouraged. Remember that some elephant leaders are natural born but that some, perhaps most, hone the skills they need to lead others through years of learning and experience. If upon reflection you can say that you are practicing elephant leadership, that you are an elephant leader, then fantastic! This should be evidenced by those who look to you regularly for leadership, by the circle of influence that you maintain and continue to grow.
In either case, we all need to remind ourselves that leadership is a process, not an end state. Take a lesson from the rat…simply exhibiting one or two of the characteristics of an elephant leader does not in itself make us elephant leaders! But if we diligently and continually strive to integrate more of the attributes of the wise matriarch into the fiber of our own leadership, we will gradually transform ourselves into elephant leaders.