I have a friend, Elizabeth Widmer, who took time to straighten out my thinking about elephants. In an earlier post, I described three elephants at the Nashville zoo as sloshing in the mud, throwing dirt on their backs, and bumping into each other as they jockeyed for position.According to Elizabeth (who with a degree in zoology actually knows something about elephants), elephants, unlike people, do not jockey for position:
Elephants live in a matriarchal structured social order. The herd’s well being depends on the guidance of the matriarch. She serves the others by determining when they eat, rest, bathe or drink. Later in life, as the matriarch begins to be limited by advancing age, without question the next oldest replaces her. With this structure there will always be a leader, without struggle.
There are at least two things about the elephant matriarch’s leadership that people-leaders would do well to mimic:
1) the matriarch serves the others
2) the matriarch steps down when limited by….
The very best people-leaders serve their organizations instead of being served by the organization. I once heard a leader tell his entire staff that “you are here at my pleasure.” Not surprisingly, over the next several years, the best and brightest on that staff left at their own pleasure. Jim Collins, in describing the TEN BEST CEOs OF ALL TIME (Fortune, 2003), said this about them:
“…if one thing defines these ten giants, it was their deep sense of connectedness to the organizations they ran. Unlike CEOs who see themselves principally as members of an executive elite—an increasingly mobile club whose members measure their pay and privileges against other CEOs….Much depended on them, but it was never about them.”
It was never about them is another way of saying serves the others. Make it your motto and you’ll be a better leader—much better.
Stepping down from leadership is never easy and too often leaders don’t get the timing right. The elephant matriarch steps aside when limited by advancing age. People-leaders can be limited by a lot of things, not just age: paralysis (fear of change), near-sightedness, being hard of hearing, etc. Unfortunately, most of us don’t recognize our limitations, so unlike the elephants, a change in leadership doesn’t come without struggle. That is why it is so important for all of us to have someone who will tell us the truth about ourselves. Do you?
[Thanks to Elizabeth Widmer for her contributions to this post.]
"The best way to lead people into the future is to connect with them deeply in the present."
Kouzes & Posner