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Close encounters with elephant:  A lesson in leadership

Close encounters with elephant: A lesson in leadership

by Moyra Mackie on September 20, 2014

“The role of a great guide is to get clients as close to the animals without fear.”

Said the man on the right of this picture as he described Nic Polenakis, (centre above) a Zimbabwe guide selected by National Geographic Traveler as one of the “10 Great Tour Guides Who Can Transform Your Trip”.

Watching Nic in action certainly transformed my trip, giving a demonstration of leadership in action

Zimbabwe guides hold Professional Guides Licences, one of the most difficult, extensive and well-respected qualifications of its type in Africa.  Qualifying takes 4-5 years, including 2 years’ apprenticeship with another pro guide and a 2 day written exam.  The pass rate is around 5%.

I confess that in the moment that we came across that bull elephant standing between us and our tented room, the only thing that mattered was how Nic handled the tension – ours and the elephant’s.

Leadership is about how you show up

I had only met Nic an hour before, but I trusted him implicitly.  His rigorous training and extensive experience gave him the courage to handle our fear. He easily modelled the way he needed us to respond.

Leadership is about emotional intelligence

Emotional intelligence requires you to be aware of your own emotions as well as those around you.  Emotionally intelligent leaders are able to influence other’s emotional states for the good of the wider group.

Nic was in control of both his emotions and his actions, communicating calmly and sensitively with both potentially fearful parties – again, us and the elephants that were all around us.

Leaders don’t need formal authority, they need followship

Initially, that bull elephant was mad at all of us; he was not happy that we were coming so close to a mother and her baby.  He looked around at all of us, stamped his feet, shook his head, flapped his ears and moved towards us.

So Nic stepped towards him

Nic talked to him and the elephant instantly forgot us.  His body language changed, he became quieter and stiller, raising his trunk to sense what was happening.  He and Nic watched each other intently, although Nic never forgot us – talking to both the elephant and us.

The elephant knew who was in charge on our side, but who owned right of way?

The elephant stepped forward, testing Nic.  Nic stepped forward too and asked us to do the same.  The elephant backed off, shaking his ears and stamping his feet, in a cloud of face-saving dust.

Leadership requires courage and risk-taking

As well as those proverbial elephants in the room at workplaces up and down the land, I’m sure you can easily think of all the challenges and (perceived) threats faced by managers and their teams.

We may no longer face the risk of actual death at work, but our ancient lizard brain still kicks in with those old fight, flight, freeze messages, influencing the way we deal with conflict and handle pressure and uncertainty.

Fear and stress reduce wise decision-making

Due to the wonders of functional magnetic resonance imaging, (fMRI),  increasing numbers of studies are able to examine what happens to the human brain under prolonged stress.

 “Maladaptive stress affects cognitive behaviour… mainly as a consequence of the release of corticosteroids… several studies have revealed stress-induced deficits in spatial reference- and working-memory and behavioral flexibility…. chronic stress biases decision-making strategies in humans toward habits, as choices of stressed subjects become insensitive to changes in outcome value.” ~ JM Soares et al

In other words, we make poor decisions and rely on familiar habits (past-oriented) to deal with situations that require present or future-oriented thinking.

So what signs can we see in corporate life that indicate fear and stress?

Focus on “delivery”

“Delivery” is one of those wonderful business words that is both vague and narrow.  It means different things to different people and tempts people into busy-ness, rather than productivity.  Delivery is not a goal.  “Selling great products” or “proactively managing the risks” might be.

Skipping one-to-ones and team meetings

The lifeblood of leadership is regular, focussed contact with those who follow. How would we have coped without Nic? Teams need leaders to guide them and be present if they are not to flee, freeze or fight.

Email or process overload

Too many reply-alls or ccs are signs people are covering their backs.  A certain amount of process is important in a large organisation, but relying on process instead of leadership and engagement is a recipe for stress and overwork.

Meetings that overrun or fail to reach actionable outcomes

Indecision, desire for “more information” or lack of participation are all signs of anxiety.  I have written before about the Gestalt concept  of “interruption to action”, when staying stuck seems more preferable than taking action and experiencing the consequences.

Lack of passionate debate

Too much agreement, or unvoiced disagreement, is as toxic as colleagues shouting at each other.  Debate is essential to creativity, innovation and wise decision-making.

So how can managers learn to lead?

Recognising the symptoms of stress and cortisol overload is a great start.  The good news is that research shows that the brain changes caused by stress are reversible, particularly when individuals practice mindfulness and develop regular habits of reflection and renewal.

Leaders step towards the challenge and bring others with them

They might also take a leaf out of Nic’s book and focus on a sustained program of training and learning.  Imagine how high the standard of leadership and engagement would be if every leader was as emotionally astute, as attuned to the needs of people and the environment and as courageous as Zimbabwe safari guides?

 

Moyra Mackie

Moyra Mackie

Moyra Mackie helps leaders and teams to work with courage, compassion and creativity. She is an executive coach and consultant and the founder of Mackie Consulting.

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