Leadership Traits of the Elephant

By Wayne Visser

Based on Beyond Reasonable Greed: Why Sustainable Business is a Much Better Idea! by Wayne Visser and Clem Sunter, (Human & Rousseau / Tafelberg, 2002).

The Greatest Show on Earth

September 11, 2002 - While the rest of the world was holding their breath on the first tragic anniversary of the terror attacks in the USA, South Africa was sighing with contentment. Jozi town had just pulled off the Greatest Show on Earth - the World Summit on Sustainable Development. 30 000 delegates, more than 100 heads of state, armies of international press, peaceful protesters - they had all come and gone, and life was carrying on. For once, the politicians had good reason to pat themselves on the back.

In the parallel universe of business, the corridors of corporate South Africa were echoing with whispered relief and quiet self-congratulation. CEOs chalked up another potential crisis averted. Fatigued environmental and social investment managers basked in the afterglow of their two weeks in the glaring spotlight. PR departments counted their blessings at having been given such a great marketing opportunity on a platter.

So the tidal wave of 'sustainable development' had hit our shores and companies had survived - some a little tossed and turned, battered and bruised; others smug in their ability to out-surf the competition. But it would be a fatal mistake to think that, post-Summit, it is back to 'business as usual'. The concept of sustainability will continue to make waves. Balanced economic, social and environmental performance - the triple bottom line - is the new test of corporate success for the 21st century.

Sustainability constitutes nothing less than a set of new rules in the game of business. If companies are to survive and thrive in this changing environment, they are going to need a new generation of leadership skills. The old top management style - typical of the impressive predatory instincts of the lion - is increasingly going to become a liability. Relentlessly hunting bigger profits, reduced costs, higher share prices, greater market share and more extravagant executive packages, while compromising broader social and environment goals, is going to come back to bite. Merciless lion companies will find themselves bleeding, some even mortally wounded.

The fact of the matter is that lion-like tendencies in modern business and our capitalist economy have failed to create a sustainable world. Probably just the opposite. All the indicators are pointed in the wrong direction, whether they are measuring climate change and biodiversity loss, or poverty and income inequality. Hence, the future calls for different strengths. For inspiration, we turn to the mighty elephant - a wise leader. This article explores the remarkable traits of the elephant, as a metaphor that can be applied to a new style leadership that we need, in order to create more sustainable businesses and, ultimately, a more sustainable world.

An Icon of Leadership

The elephant is a truly amazing creature. It is an animal that has been respected, revered, even worshipped, in many of the world's cultures for thousands of years. While the Western world has been obsessed with the power symbol of the lion, the East has long held the elephant as their supreme animal icon.

In Hinduism, the oldest and most pervasive religion of the Indian sub-continent, elephants hold high status. In their Creation story, elephants are accorded the title of 'bearers and keepers of the universe'. Furthermore, one of the Hindu gods, Ganesh, who is the protector of wisdom, erudition and well-being, chooses the head of an elephant in his preferred form. Elephant legends also surround Guatama Siddhartha, the Buddha: some depicting the white elephant as the original carrier of his soul, while in others the elephant protects him from harm. Even today, Indian elephants are regarded as sacred, and many are given garland-laden funerals.

In India, elephants have also long been associated with kings. The Book of Old Indian Elephant Lore states that "elephants are consubstantial with kings" and "the Creator of the world created the regal elephant for the salvation of the world, and endowed him with majestic power and splendour." Elephants, placed on the same level as kings since ancient times, have therefore remained closely associated with India's rulers and their ceremonial occasions throughout history.

Of course, it is not just in the East that elephants have enjoyed special cultural and religious status. There is a particularly rich tradition of honouring the elephant in Africa. According to some traditions, elephants are reincarnations of gods who have been slain in the unseen land of the sky. Others believe that elephants live for hundreds of years and are reborn again and again in some magical way.

The association with political leadership is also strong. The iconic leader of the Zulu nation, Shaka, was called 'son of the elephant' and the king of the Swazi nation is still today known as 'the great elephant'. In praise songs, the elephant gets a series of impressive titles: 'animal of our kings', 'lord of the trees', 'master of the valleys', 'king of creation' and 'servant of the great Earth Mother'. There are also many African legends about the time before people lived on earth, when all the animals of the bush lived together under one king - Elephant. The stories all describe this time as one of peace, justice and prosperity, for Elephant was a wise ruler. Lion, the great deceiver, made all kinds of attempts to become king, but no one took his efforts seriously. They all knew that it was Elephant who possessed all the qualities of genuine leadership.

When Elephant Was King

[OPTIONAL STORY: One particular legend from Zimbabwe, recounted by Nick Reaves in When Elephant was King, begins to hint at why the elephant is an appropriate symbol of leadership in the area of sustainability. One year in Southern Africa, drought struck. The rains failed and the animals soon ran short of water. One by one, the water holes began to dry up and their plight became very serious. Such was their distress that King Elephant called a council of all the animals where they were all invited to come up with suggestions. Having listened to their ideas, he decided that their short-term solution to the lack of drinking water was to dig a large, new well in the nearby river bed. The water table had dropped drastically and the animals had to work night and day without resting. King Elephant worked hardest of all using his enormous tusks to dig deep into the river bed, while the others carried away the soil, mouthful by mouthful. Eventually Elephant reached water and the animals rejoiced, praising the strength and hard work of their wise king. Then Elephant made rules about the water hole so that the water should be shared equally and everyone could quench their thirst. He decided that the animals could only come and drink at sunrise and sunset.

That is only half of the story. Lion disobeyed the rules and crept down in the middle of the night to drink his fill. He also had a bath and muddied the water. Then, in an attempt to discredit Elephant and usurp his throne, he gathered up some mud and smeared it on sleeping Elephant's feet. Fortunately, Lion's plan was neither well thought out nor cleverly executed. Not only did he forget to clean the mud off of his own paws, but his tracks were the only fresh spoor at the water hole. Lion was banished from Elephant's kingdom and King Elephant retained the trust of his subjects and reigned over them for a long time. The rains returned and life was good.

The end of the story is also worth noting. By the time old Elephant died many years later, he was the most respected animal in the land. Lion now had his chance and proclaimed himself to be King of the Beasts. After his takeover many things changed and the animals of the bush were no longer ruled by a fair and just leader. There was much grumbling and you would often overhear statements such as: "If only things were like they used to be, when Elephant was King!" STORY ENDS]

What if, in our modern society, Lion was no longer king? What if Elephant was king (or queen) once more? For, according to the theme of this article, in the bushveld of the future where social equity and environmental sustainability are the watchwords of society, Elephant has all the right characteristics to be the leader. Let us explore some of these traits in more detail.

Masters of Survival

Elephants are the epitome of sustainability, having survived for 50 million years and having evolved through the forms of more than 300 species to reach us today as our largest land mammal. They have shown themselves to be supreme survivors and masters at adapting to different regions, climates and habitats. From their origins on the dry, grassy plains of Africa, they spread across all the continents except for Australia, adjusting to steamy tropical rain forests, sandy coastal deserts, extreme mountain terrain and snowy temperate zones. They have even survived an ice age.

Adaptation is the key. The desert elephants have evolved into more slender creatures with longer legs to cope with the sandy conditions, while the forest varieties are smaller and more compact. The elephants also have the ability to modify their behaviour, depending on the prevailing circumstances. For example, during a drought, they are able to regulate their reproductivity so as not to give birth to young when the chances of survival are poor. When they migrate during the dry season, they also break up into smaller groups to allow greater flexibility in the face of scarce resources.

Lion-like people or institutions or nations stand in marked contrast. Although proving themselves to be extremely innovative and flexible when dealing with highly visible threats constituting typical fight-or-flight situations, they have a very poor radar system when it comes to picking up and responding to more fundamental, invisible changes over long periods of time. For example, the modern capitalist corporation, especially the multinational, is for the most part less than 100 years old and already it is threatening to destroy the very social and ecological fabric on which it depends. We are going to need to learn what it means to survive epochs and symbolic ice ages, and the elephant can lead the way.

Benefactors of Cooperation

Elephants are not predators. They are complete vegetarians living from the land, not off their fellow-creatures. They have no natural enemies other than humans and are seldom seen in violent encounters with other species. In fact, bushlore has it that despite their tremendous size, elephants in the wild go out of their way not to harm any other animals in their path, no matter how small.

As a rule, the elephant's relationship to other species and Nature is highly cooperative and symbiotic. For example, elephants often provide the lifeline that other animals need in the dry bushveld by digging for water, or enlarging existing water holes. Their eating habits, which often appear destructive, simultaneously open up the forest canopy to allow young growth better access to the sunlight and make previously inaccessible vegetation more widely available to other species. They also fertilise and distribute the seeds of a large variety of plants, earning them the nickname of 'gardeners'. Not only are they the plumbers and gardeners of the wild, they are also the road-builders, leaving a vast network of trails that give other creatures pathways through sometimes dense habitat. Elephants' cooperation with humans is also legendary, from the storybook tales of Tarzan and Mowgli, to the real life war-elephants of Hannibal and the hardworking domesticated animals of India and Africa.

In the complex world of wider accountability, business will need to learn to survive not by its ability to hunt and kill, but by its capacity to identify, nurture and sustain cooperative relationships. Like the elephant, this behaviour among the dominant countries or companies will be in spite of or perhaps even because of their great size and power in the modern world.

Inspirers of Greatness

Elephants' awesome size and strength inspires respect and admiration from humans and other animals alike, although they do not abuse their power. While some of their ancestors stood an incredible 13 feet at the shoulder, a full-grown African elephant bull remains supremely impressive, measuring 11-12 feet at the shoulder and weighing around 6 tons. In terms of size and strength, the analogy with today's multinational corporations is a fitting one.

But it's not just that they are big; it's how elephants carry themselves that counts. When they walk, there is a remarkable grace in their movement. When threatened, they can move quickly across the ground, reaching speeds of up to 40 kilometres an hour. When stretching for food just out of reach, they show unbelievable balance and agility. When moving through the bush or forest, they can travel with great stealth and silence. In fact, the bone structure of their feet is designed so that they constantly walk on tiptoes, cushioned by a pad of fatty tissue across their soles. And when duelling for mating dominance, they give breathtaking displays of coordinated aggression like an intricate dance between highly trained warriors.

The key for a sustainable future is not only to learn to find this grace and flexibility, it is also to be creatures of inspiration. Like Dumbo, sustainable companies need to believe they can fly against the odds and in the face of public perception. We need to add new symbols to the traditional symbols of success, not for show but because it is the right thing to do. Above all, our politicians and businesses need to exchange a reluctance to display generosity - because it is a sign of weakness to give anything away that you don't have to - for a more conscientious and caring image.

Leaders of Compassion

Elephant life in the herd is governed by a matriarch. In family and clan, all authority is vested in experienced mother elephants who demand respect and are acknowledged as the herd leaders. They alone protect and lead the growing calves; they maintain order and harmony in the groups; they face the foe with courage and aggression when danger threatens. The role of each cow in the herd is clearly defined, from the leader to the rear guard, in family groups that can number up to twenty or thirty animals.

This matriarchal social structure also appears to manifest in the kind of values that dominate the herd. Relationships are paramount, constantly nurtured through communication and bonding. Caring for and protecting the next generation is every adult elephant's prime concern. And paying tribute to their deceased companions is a ritual of compassion that moves all who witness it. Elephants are known to linger over the carcasses of their dead, forming a laager to ward off the first waves of predators. Or when they encounter only the skeletal remains of another elephant, they can be seen gently touching and smelling the bones with their trunks, with some even carrying a bone with them for a while afterwards.

Achieving comparable levels of social cohesion, empowering woman in leadership and embracing caring values and compassionate attributes - these will be the strengths that allow companies to survive and thrive in the new age where relationships are paramount.

Champions of Communication

Elephants possess highly developed senses that allow them to be in constant communication with their family and the larger herd, while simultaneously receiving information-laden feedback from the environment that surrounds them. An elephant's trunk, comprising more than ten thousand muscles and millions of nerves, is like an amazing multi-functional 'technology', capable of transmitting messages, picking up scented codes, gathering fuel, washing, not to mention caressing and playing. With this remarkable instrument, an elephant can smell water 12 miles away.

Elephants have a rich and varied language of communication and a range of sounds to express moods and feelings: a purring vibration denoting pleasure as they greet one of their kind; a rumbling sound in the throat, when feeling pain; a soft, moaning squeal when experiencing loneliness and boredom in captivity; a hissing rumble of anger; and an eerie melodious 'singing' when in community. Their most incredible ability, however, was only discovered by American zoologist, Katherine Payne, in 1984 when she began to wonder why 'the air trembled' around elephants sometimes. Subsequent research has shown that elephants communicate with each other over vast distances using infrasound, namely frequencies that are too low for the human ear to hear.

We will likewise need to be geniuses of communication in business, using a wide variety of channels to ensure that they are in tune with the needs and opinions of diverse groups. Companies will need to improve their communication 'hardware' for receiving constant feedback.

Keepers of Wisdom

Elephants are among the most intelligent creatures in the world. With the largest brain of any land mammal and a brain-to-body mass ratio second only to humans, they also have among the highest 'intelligence index' of any animal: 104 compared, for example, with that of the dolphin at 121 and the human at 170 (we are not talking IQs!). The prolonged period of childhood shared by the elephant species is another indication of its evolutionary intelligence. Elephants display a remarkable capacity for learning in captivity as well as in the wild. What's more, they seem to share acquired knowledge amongst themselves. For example, when one elephant in a group experiences the shock from an electrified fence, none of the others will touch the fence; somehow, they invisibly warn each other and learn from each other's mistakes.

There is also the legendary capacity that elephants have in terms of long term memory; hence the saying 'an elephant never forgets'. More than this, elephants appear capable of passing on their learning from one generation to another, as has been witnessed from certain behavioural responses of young elephants when culling has been reintroduced after a long moratorium.

For all these reasons, it is perhaps not surprising that elephants are associated with wisdom by many ancient cultures. Their lifespan is about 60 to 70 years, not much shorter than our own. Some African tribes even refer to their tusks as 'wisdom sticks'. Like the elephant, business leaders of the future will need to be far more intelligent and wise than today. In the end, they will be rewarded for never forgetting. As the nineteenth century German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer observed: "The idea of the elephant is imperishable".


Wayne Visser is Director of Sustainability Services at KPMG. Beyond Reasonable Greed is available in South African bookstores or can be ordered online from www.kalahari.net.