5 leadership lessons tracking an elephant

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Let me set the stage.

On safari, we tracked a bull elephant and were able to get within 15 - 20 feet of it. In the photo above, lower right hand side, you can see the top of the guide's head. I was RIGHT behind him taking this photo!

Absolutely wanting to experience this, I felt a rush of excitement, and understandably, more than a bit of apprehension.

Luckily for us, we were with one of the top guides in Zimbabwe. One known to be an “elephant whisperer.”

Prior to leaving the safari jeep, our guide gave us specific directions:

  • Stay very close together in single file walking slowly behind me. We want to appear as one entity to the elephant.
  • Be very quiet as we don’t want to startle the elephant. And,
  • Listen to my directions and do what I say.

When we left the jeep, the guide loaded his rifle (to be used only if absolutely necessary and a requirement of the guiding association) and puffed chalk into the air to see which way the wind was blowing. We wanted to be downwind from the elephant so that he wouldn’t smell us. He then picked a route for us to follow to get near the elephant.

We slowly moved as one toward the elephant eating grass in a slough. We crept very slowly, sometimes doing the duck walk to stay low.

When the elephant realized we were there, he moved toward us. It was a large, older bull. He was curious, but also somewhat concerned. Our guide told us to sit down in the grass. The guide remained standing and tapped his ring on the barrel of his gun, which caused the elephant to pause. After a few seconds, the elephant continued to advance. The guide then scuffed some dirt into the air with this foot, the elephant paused again. There were a few tense moments - A STAND OFF - both of us looking at each other.

The million dollar question: What was he going to do?

He had one leg slightly bent, which we were told means the elephant is thinking. He must have decided that we were not a threat as he slowly backed away from us and went back into the swamp. His tail was swinging and he was eating - signs that an elephant is relaxed.

Our tracking adventure over, we slowly walked back to the jeep. Reaching the jeep, we all had big smiles and a feeling of jubilation.

What did I learn from this experience that applies to leadership in organizations?

Strong leadership is important. Trekking with this guide, we knew where he was taking us, that he was skilled, and that he had the knowledge, experience and training to take the us there. We also trusted that he had our best interests in mind rather than his own, as well as having our ‘backs’. People in organizations are looking for the same from their leaders.
Clear expectations are critical in an adventure setting; equally so in an organizational setting. If expectations for the leaders and teams aren’t clear, how will people know if they are doing what is expected and know when they are successful?
Preparation – Everything requires preparation. The days of “winging it” are over. African adventures and initiatives within organizations require significant and sufficient preparation to be successful.
Intentional choice –Everyone on the safari made a conscious to track an elephant. No one accidently jumped into the jeep and journeyed to the slough only to find out what we were aiming to do. In organizations, conscious choice is essential. Each individual makes a choice every day with respect to level of engagement, amount of work completed, and if/how to support the organization. What is most impactful is individuals fully committing their hearts and minds to the organization. Intention and commitment go hand-in-hand. It is the same tracking an elephant – once you make the commitment, you’ve made it. Turning back is only an option if everyone in the group agrees.
Risk – We knew that tracking elephants had significant risk. Indeed, every action involves risk. It is important to acknowledge this, understand what the level of risk is, and have a risk mitigation strategy. Pretending that there is no risk and then finding out that there is, is not acceptable on safari or in organizations.
Tracking elephants or leading organizations, strong leadership, clear expectations, preparation, intentional choice, risk acknowledgement and mitigation are all important.

My safari adventure can best be summed up by the following statement by Helen Keller: “Life is either a daring adventure or nothing.”

I’m interested in hearing about how you’ve incorporated lessons from your adventures to your organization.


About Wilma Slenders, PhD

I'm a strategic advisor, executive coach, and management consultant. I've completed a Master’s in Management, a doctorate in Leadership, studied CEOs and their trusted advisor relationships, and have founded four successful companies in four different industry sectors.

My passion is to help individuals and corporations grow to reach their full potential. A lifetime of business experience has given me the ability to effectively support my clients to perform better, grow faster, and achieve more.

To maintain work-life balance, I spend my time outdoors, travel, and take photos, some of which will be featured in my blog posts. Contact me at: Wilma@transcendmgt.com 

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