Elephant Leaders are Courageous

Are you comfortable in your role as a leader?  Are you content, is your business on cruise control?  This is a dangerous place to be, my friend. Contentment in leadership is the enemy of excellence, and the friend of mediocrity. True leaders are uncomfortable. Confident? Yes. Focused? Yes. But uncomfortable, because they have a vision that has not yet been reached.  Uncomfortable because they know that they can better serve their customers, improve their services, and get more out of their teams. True leaders embrace this discomfort, this discontent.  It motivates them. It is a reminder of who and where they are, a reminder that they have a purpose.

In order to fulfill your purpose as a leader in this environment of discomfort, you must have courage, that rare quality that is the hallmark of true leadership:

  • Courage to be Visionary. Without a vision, there is no sense of direction, nothing on which to focus. As a leader, you must have the courage to cast a vision and then to single-mindedly work towards that vision. Others will only buy into a vision after they are convinced that you as their leader is committed to the vision.
  • Courage to Innovate. In Dealing With Darwin, Geoffrey Moore argues that lack of innovation leads to commoditization. Commoditization in turn leads to competing on price alone, which is not a good place to be as a business.  With innovation, businesses are able to differentiate and then to compete based on that differentiation. Because the marketplace is continually evolving, innovation is a continuous process.  You must have courage to overcome the inertia of what works for your business today, and look for the next innovation that will further differentiate you from your competition.  I guarantee you that your competitors are not standing still!
  • Courage to Act. Once you have cast a vision, you must be committed to making the tough decisions required to realize that vision.  More importantly, you must be willing to act on those decisions and take responsibility for their consequences, good or bad. If you do not follow through on your decisions, you will eventually lose credibility with others.
  • Moral Courage. As a leader, you must have the courage to stand for what you believe, for what you know is right.  You must have the conviction to do this even when you stand alone.  Are you even willing to put your job on the line if necessary to preserve your moral integrity?  If not, then perhaps you shouldn’t be leading. In time you won’t be leading, because if you lack moral courage others will soon lose faith in you as a leader.
  • Courage to Fail. Quite often leaders do not execute on decisions because they are afraid of failure. The truth is that failure is inevitable, and necessary for an organization to learn. The best organizations learn from the failures of others and fail faster themselves in order to minimize the cost of learning from those failures.  Not only should you expect failure, but you should also create a culture where failure is accepted.  Removing the fear of failure from an organization encourages employees to openly communicate those failures (rather than hiding them to avoid punishment), which in turn facilitates the learning process.
  • Courage to be Transparent. You must have the courage to admit when you are wrong. I am not talking about failure here, I am talking about making a decision based on wrong motives, failing to give credit where credit is due, or misleading others with half truths. Leaders make mistakes of judgment, motive, and omission just like everyone else.  Hopefully, you as a leader have learned from the mistakes of your past and make fewer of them today.  At the very least, you should be constantly on guard against these kinds of mistakes and transparent about them when they happen. If not, you will eventually lose the trust of others.

Elephant leaders are courageous. They must be because, quite frankly, it takes courage to lead.  Courage is what sets true leaders apart from those who simply happen to fill leadership positions. Many, perhaps even most, people in leadership positions are not willing to step out of their comfort zone to make unpopular decisions, to stand against the majority because of what they know is right.  They choose comfort over courage because leading with courage is hard. What they may not realize is that they are also choosing mediocrity over excellence; over time, mediocrity results in failure.

In this microwave world of instant gratification, in this relativistic world of doing what “feels” best, we need more courageous leaders.  Courage is required for travel on the path to excellence. I challenge you to honestly assess your own leadership, and commit yourself to leading courageously.

Elephant Leaders Lead By Example


A leader who fails to lead by example soon finds himself leading no one.  Elephant leaders grow in influence and inspire others to follow by the example they set.


Always do everything you ask of those you command.
— George S. Patton


I recently introduced elephant matriarchs as a good example of natural leaders.  They are respected by the herd for their long history of good decision-making and compassion for others. They exhibit courage, wisdom, and excellent work ethic. These are all admirable and important attributes, but the defining characteristic of a leader is influence.  As John Maxwell so aptly states in his book Developing the Leader Within You, “Leadership Is Influence: Nothing More, Nothing Less.”  Influence, however, is an earned attribute. It is not something innate within a person, nor can it be learned; it can only be amplified over time as one consistently demonstrates leadership to others.

Essential to gaining influence is leading by example. A leader who fails to lead by example soon finds himself leading no one. Potential followers will interpret the lack of action as a lack of commitment and look elsewhere for the leadership they need.

American WWII general George Patton’s convictions about leading by example are reflected in the quote above.  Another important WWII general was Douglas MacArthur, who penned The MacArthur Tenets of Leadership outlining the principles by which he led. Among those tenets are principles whereby he acknowledges the importance of leading by example:

  • Am I a constant example to my subordinates in character, dress, deportment and courtesy?
  • Do I act in such a way as to make my subordinates WANT to follow me?

As a military general, MacArthur understood that he had to “lead from the front”.  In order to be followed, he had to set an example that inspired his men to follow, that built trust.  He understood that if he simply directed the battle from behind the lines, his troops would not have his courageous and confident example to follow, with potentially disastrous results.

Like good military generals or elephant matriarchs, leaders in professional services must build trust and influence by constantly offering themselves as examples for their teams and organizatons.  If a project requires that team members work a weekend, the leader must make himself or herself available over the weekend as well, in support of that project team.  If goals or self reviews are due from team members on a certain date, the leader must make certain that their own goals and self review is also completed by the appropriate date.  This is leadership that inspires those that follow and creates influence, which in turn enables the leader to better lead.

Do you recall an example where you or another leader did something demonstrable that increased their influence and inspired others to follow? How about an instance where someone’s influence was damaged by their failure to lead by example?  Leave a comment and share your experiences!

Do You Practice Elephant Leadership?

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.