The Elephant in the Room

Every leader has an executive and an elephant inside them, says Dick Daft. Successful leaders must recognize both sides of themselves and use them to be effective.

From the Summer 2014 edition of Vanderbilt Business

Elephant in the Room

There’s a leader within us that is at odds with our inner elephant. That conflict impacts our growth and ability to lead, says Richard Daft, the Brownlee O. Currey Jr. Professor of Management, Emeritus.

The leader is objective, rational and responsible, while the elephant is emotion-driven, impulsive and habitual. Daft believes that successful leaders must recognize both sides of themselves and use them to be effective.

Daft has studied leadership and business for decades. Going on what he calls a type of spiritual journey to India in 1995, Daft returned with the concept of the inner elephant and inner executive. He explored the tension between the two in his book, The Executive and the Elephant: A Leader’s Guide for Building Inner Excellence. He’s also used it to prepare students for leadership and to help executives looking to vault their leadership skills forward.

In addition to his emeritus role, Daft continues that work in Vanderbilt’s Executive Development Institute, where he teaches the bulk of the courses that make up the Certificate of Leadership Excellence, a popular series of four programs.

An elephant doesn’t forget . . . and that’s bad

Daft says the elephant literally grows from almost the time we’re born.

“When we start interacting with the world, these interactions make an impression on the nervous system, and over a long period of time, we develop a way of responding,” Daft says. “How we respond—that’s the elephant. The other part of us is the executive—our higher consciousness that can see and offer guidance to this elephant and go higher, above the elephant, to have better experiences with people.”

Our inner elephant never forgets—and there lies part of the problem. “We avoid what we’ve found painful and go toward things that we found loving and what feels good,” he says. “Our memory bank guides us. … But what about that person who avoids conflict because he had bad experiences early on? Unfortunately that’s a decent amount of people.”

Leadership begins within

So how do we become more of the executive and less of the animal within?

Daft offers some simple exercises that can help anyone become a better leader. The first is to simply calm your mind. “I tell people to breathe and think clearly,” he says. “They usually have their mind wander within a few seconds. Then they breathe again. Now it takes a little longer before they wander. They try to breathe again … Throughout, it’s the elephant that keeps them from concentrating.”

Another aid is self-talk. “It’s a self-hypnosis,” Daft says. “Take someone who is quiet and doesn’t participate in meetings. You say to yourself 20 times in the morning, ‘I am becoming more outgoing and participating in meetings.’ Then, in the evening, do it 100 times. Lo and behold, in a few days you are rewiring your elephant and participating more. It’s amazing how well it can work.”

Dick Daft
Decades of students and corporate executives have benefited from Dick Daft’s leadership expertise.

Living with the elephant

As much as anything, being a better leader is also about avoiding common blind spots. “The biggest may be when a person is negative to others,” he says. “Some speak strongly and don’t realize how they’re pushing people away. They also tend to want to fight things out. You need to resist this or you’ll have a hard time motivating people.”

Although some change can happen quickly, you can’t expect to transform all your negative traits overnight. Daft has even wrestled with a few of his own.

“For example, I would have sometimes liked to have been more visible on campus,” he says. “I became better at this as time went on, but I know firsthand change doesn’t happen easily. … The funny thing is many executives I’ve met know what they need to do but they find it hard, too.”

One of the world’s most highly cited authors in the fields of economics and business, Daft held the Brownlee O. Currey Jr. Chair in Management and focused on teaching leadership and change management at Owen before being named to emeritus status last year. A fellow of the Academy of Management, he frequently works with corporate executives (his clients have included Bristol-Myers Squibb and the Ford Motor Company) and tested many of the ideas and techniques in The Executive and the Elephant on them. He continues to share his leadership expertise in a series of popular courses in Vanderbilt’s Executive Development Institute.