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The Importance of the Elephant (in the room)

When thinking about leadership and what makes it tough, I spend a lot of time thinking about elephants. In fact, there are two distinct elephant thoughts. I think about the elephant in the room and I think about the story of the blind people and the elephant.  My suspicion is that every leader has confronted one or both of these leadership elephants.

The Leadership Challenge of the Unspoken Elephant
According to Phrase Finder, the elephant in the room in the room is a reference to an important and obvious topic, which everyone present is aware of, but which isn't discussed, as such discussion is considered to be uncomfortable.

Examples of this kind of elephant include things like conflicts between people or teams, distrust of the leader, a broken process or product, an underperforming staff member, a manager who never gives feedback, and major differences of opinion about an issue or an organizational stance. While the phrase “silence is golden” is often used, (and I can appreciate the beauty of quiet) it is problematic when such issues are rampant. When there is conflict, confusion, or calamity, it does not serve your mission, margin, or mind to allow those things to remain unspoken. An elephant in the room takes up space, erodes culture, and prevents a full focus on the true organizational priorities. Signs that this elephant is present include: myriad ‘parking lot’ conversations (watercooler chats that happen outside), palpable tensions and silence when people clearly have opinions, conversations that only include the usual suspects, limited perspectives shared in discussions, problematic relationships among staff, and limited attention to or advancement of the mission.

Encourage your team to name the elephant in the room. The work of Diana McLain Smith is an important resource for leaders and followers who wish to name the elephant in the room.

The Leadership Challenge of the Partially Seen Elephant
In the story of the blind men and the elephant, the issue is different. In this elephant leadership scenario, there is wide recognition of the presence of an elephant, but dangerously limited perspectives on what an elephant actually is. The story of the blind people and the elephant details the first encounter that six blind people have with an elephant. Each approaches the beast eager to understand what it is, and given the enormity of an elephant, they unknowingly position themselves at very different parts of the elephant. One approaches the elephant from its tusks and quickly deduces that an elephant is like a sphere. Another approaches it from the side, and counters the first assertion, stating that an elephant is like a wall. The third reaches out, grabbing the leg, and shakes her head concluding that the others must be utterly confused because an elephant is like a tree. As the fourth approaches the elephant, grabbing the tail, he argues that an elephant is like a rope. The fifth places her hands gently on the ear of the elephant, and says, “Friends, an elephant is like a fan”. The sixth, deeply confused by all the other ideas espoused, holds onto the trunk thinking, an elephant is like a snake. Meanwhile, this leadership challenge is further complicated as other team members listen and determine whose perspectives they agree with. Some decide based on whose argument was most compelling. Others align with people based on their affinities – “I agree with my manager” or “I agree with my friend”. The leadership dilemma, of course, is that while there is veracity in each claim, none of the perspectives is accurate, because they do not correctly or fully define an elephant.

Signs that this elephant is present includes circular arguments among team members, a shortage of clarity seeking questions, arguments based on limited data or absent sets, divisiveness among staff members, ‘parking lot’ conversations, an inability to find merit in the perspectives of others, shallow listening, limited capacity to synthesize multiple data points and viewpoints, problematic relationships among staff, and limited attention to or advancement of the mission.

Encourage your team to get on the balcony to increase their field of vision and flesh out their perspectives of what an elephant is. The work of Heifetz and Linsky is an important resource for leaders and followers who wish to see the entire elephant.

In my experience as a leader, in education and business contexts, I have found that these elephants often travel together. Some people are aware of the presence of an elephant. Others miss it entirely. This creates cultural problems because there are implicit in-crowds and out-crowds. The in-crowd represents those who know and may be actively discussing the elephant. The dilemma in their awareness is that the perspective is often skewed because it is limited. When someone asserts that they are incorrect, certainty about the piece that they are holding makes it hard for them to be dissuaded. If you are holding the tail of the elephant, it makes sense to describe it as a rope – not because it actually is like a rope, but because the data from which you are drawing conclusions is accurate but incomplete. I have often found that certainty about perspectives limits willingness to listen.  Standing in the rear, gripping the tail, without access to the entirety of the beast, could easily lead to exasperation toward those who would say that the elephant is a wall or a pillar, or a spear.

So, What is the Leader to do?
In my own approach to addressing the twin elephant issue, I have employed a number of strategies. Once, I sat before my team holding a picture of an elephant and a list of the dilemmas that unnamed elephants create. Below, I share a partial list of strategies leaders might deploy.

·     Model naming the elephant; demonstrate that you value this practice

·     Encourage others to name the elephant and celebrate their bravery when they do

·     Elevate the perspectives of others and walk them through your synthesis process

·     Invite people to offer you feedback on your leadership and process it publicly

·     Ask lots of questions to inform your own perspective and to serve as an exemplar of not operating with limited data

·     Encourage development of a broader field of vision (get your team on the balcony) by encouraging the development of a close, intimate, passionate relationship with data and a desire to understand the perspectives of others

·     Explicitly state the expectation that your team create a safe space for such conversations to occur and that they eliminate ‘parking lot’ conversations and “teaming up” against people with whom they hold different perspectives

None of these strategies will work in isolation or as “one-and-done” approaches. However, repeated use of these strategies in combination has been shown to lessen the impact of the elephant leadership challenges. With intentionality, these strategies can contribute to creating the necessary conditions for elephants to be named and perspectives to be broadened. With the elephants properly wrangled, the mission can be attended to, advanced, and ultimately, actualized. Without wrangling the elephants, the mission falls out of focus because a herd of elephants is blocking the view.

Barbara SmithManagement, Leadership