Leadership can work anywhere for anyone: The elephant and the wildebeests

First of all, this is a true story, but the lesson is my interpretation.

There is a conservation park in Zimbabwe that supports injured animals, helping them to heal and recover.  As these animals often have considerable human contact they are not released back into the wild, but instead, are able to live happy and long lives in this vast park, hunting and interacting as if in the wild.   

Okay – but where is the leadership angle?

One severely injured baby elephant came to the park.  It spent a lot of time with humans who treated and cared for her.  As she grew and slowly healed, she started to spend more time outside of the hospital and in the park.  No one really knows why, but she did not interact with the large numbers of elephants (the elephant tribe) in the park.  Perhaps she was frightened of their size and numbers.  One view was that she did not know their language, their noises and grunts, they use to communicate to each other.

Instead, the elephant joined a small group of wildebeests.  And she became their leader.  Wow – that’s a big wow, as animals keep to their own tribe.  She would walk and they would follow.  She would watch over them when they settled at night.  Sometimes, there were fights within the tribe, but she would settle those.  She communicated and listened to the wildebeests as they did to her.

Four key parts to note:

  • the elephant chose to be the leader;
  • the wildebeests accepted the elephant as their leader;
  • there were struggles but this unique tribe worked through them;
  • after nearly 30 years, the elephant remains the leader.


And now we can go to the leadership angle/lesson.  Leadership is about choice.  You choose to be a leader.  Even if you are promoted to a leadership role, you still need to choose to be a leader to your team and in your organisation. 

Steven Covey explains this concept so well.  He says that we routinely call people with important titles, or positions of authority, our leaders.  We rate them as good or bad leaders and when things go wrong, we blame them – it was their actions and choices that were wrong. 

Steven Covey argues that this process empowers formal managers’ weaknesses and thereby disempowers ourselves.  We all can choose to have a voice, inspire others, travel a positive and learning journey. 

If an elephant can choose to lead, we all can make a positive choice to contribute.  Your first step (with purpose) on your leadership journey is to simply use your voice and your ears – share your views, ask and listen for other views.

Steven Covey puts it simply — leadership is communicating to people their worth and potential so clearly and consistently that they really come to see it in themselves and set in motion the process of seeing, doing and becoming.

So maybe the so-called ‘elephant in the room’ is not that bad, it just needs leadership.

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