The Elephant Inside

From the Fall 2010 edition of Vanderbilt Business

Dick Daft
Dick Daft

Whether you are the CEO of a Fortune 500 company or just trying to manage yourself, Dick Daft, the Brownlee O. Currey Jr. Professor of Management, says you must learn to control your “inner elephant.”

In his recently published book, The Executive and the Elephant: A Leader’s Guide to Building Inner Excellence, Daft combines research in management, psychology, neuroscience and Eastern spirituality to argue that everyone has two sides to his or her personality. The “executive” is objective, rational and responsible, while the “elephant” is emotion-driven, impulsive and habitual. Daft believes that truly successful leaders must recognize both sides and follow practical exercises to learn to control their inner elephant and ultimately change a weakness in their behavior.

“I find that virtually every leader has a bottleneck within them. If they could remove it—if they could be just a little less critical-minded toward other people or if they could be more focused and attentive—they could be a much better leader overall,” Daft says. “What this book does is help them identify that weak link and remove it.”

Daft says that almost every leader makes six mental mistakes: (1) reacting too quickly, (2) inflexible thinking, (3) wanting control, (4) emotional avoidance and attraction, (5) exaggerating the future, and (6) chasing the wrong gratifications. All of these are tied to a person’s emotional and impulsive side, or their elephant.

Daft combines research in management, psychology, neuroscience and Eastern spirituality in his latest book.
Daft combines research in management, psychology, neuroscience and Eastern spirituality in his latest book.

“The whole idea of the executive is to be objective and not to interpret things just based on your own likes and dislikes, your own hang-ups, your own issues,” he says. “You have to be able to detach from that and be able to see the other point of view, the big picture, with some level of objectivity. When people can be in that place, they make wonderful decisions. It’s when they get anchored in their own neediness, their own greed, that they get into trouble.”

Daft says that people can remove a lot of inner struggle by being in the moment and accepting their “elephant” but not letting the elephant control them or their behavior. Real change, he believes, can only come from practice. He describes more than a dozen exercises that are grounded in practical application to help leaders control their elephant and change bad behaviors. He then gives examples of leaders who tried each individual approach and how it impacted them. A few exercises include engaging and writing down your intentions, slowing down your reaction time to think, and repeating a mantra.

“I’ve worked with a lot of executives who know what they should be doing,” he says. “They’ve gotten feedback that they should do something differently or act differently with their employees, but they’re unable to execute the new behavior. I wrote this book not so much to tell them what to do, but rather how to change the behavior.”

Daft has published 12 books and dozens of articles and has presented at more than 45 universities around the world. He also developed and managed the Center for Change Leadership, is a former associate dean at Owen, and is a fellow of the Academy of Management.

Daft is currently studying high-performance mental models, which include cognitive models of high-performing managers, and is examining high-performance management systems. He is also studying transactional versus transformational communication to engage people in organizational change.

“I know it sounds touchy-feely, this idea of introspection and looking within, but it is so powerful,” Daft says. “Know thyself—that has real power because once you know yourself, you can manage yourself. As long as you’re blind to your own bad habits, you’ve got no chance to be a strong leader.”

One Response to “The Elephant Inside”

  1. Peter Fuller MBA

    Excellent review of an excellent book.

    Daft helped me face my elephant and tame it 🙂

    Sometimes we just need someone else to help us take a look at ourselves so that we can become better leaders.

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