In the Harvard Business Review June 2012 issue there is a special section called A New Leader’s Handbook. It encompasses several articles on…leadership. In typical Harvard Business Review style they are quite dense and aimed at executives of large companies but I still recommend you take a look even thought most of you reading this are running small and midsized companies.

What I found most interesting is how all the articles discuss things you all know and we’ve been talking about: be a role model, think wholistically, communicate always, be inclusive, be authentic, listen, listen some more, and then listen yet again. Most importantly, get the best possible people and leave them alone to do what they do best, and better than you. And even more importantly, deal with all the issues that never get talked about, those elephants wandering around the company.

After reading all this it was the elephants that stuck with me the most. No matter how well you do all the rest, if you neglect the elephants they always wind up squashing you. 

The elephants are different than all the other ideas. They are different than all the other leadership skills, they force you to enter the danger.

For those of you wondering what I mean by the elephants wandering around the company, they are all those things that no one ever talks about. The owner’s incompetent son treated like the best manager ever. The CEO’s obssession with a business unit that will never ever be successful no matter how much money is thrown at it. The leadership team’s self reinforcing ideas that bear no resemblance to what is actually going on down on the factory floor. The senior executive who sabotages other executives since she is not in agreement with the direction of the business.

The things everyone knows but never talks about because the senior person or people don’t want to hear it.

Of course, it’s not true that no one talks about these things.  Everyone talks about them.  They just never bring them up where they can be resolved: with the senior executive. These issues float throughout the company causing untold harm and destroying the basic need of any successful company, open and honest communication. The are the cancer slowly eating away at the organization.

It’s dangerous for people to bring up these issues because they just might get their head handed to them. My son incompetent? Inconceivable. That business unit a dog? Just one more year and profits will flow. And on and on in Executive Fantasyland.

Yet the best executives encourage such discussion. They encourage their people to enter the danger always. They understand that if you can’t address the big issues trying to hide in the darkness the organization will never achieve its fullest potential, and neither will the people. They understand that these elephants are just issues needing to be discussed and resolved. Big issues, but still, just issues.

Entering the danger is scary. It forces everyone to address issues that are uncomfortable, that lead to difficult discussions…and decisions, that uncover your biases and how they have held back success. Most uncomfortably it can lead you to realize that the biggest elephant in the room is…you.




Commenting area

  1. Exactly right, Steve, although I think it’s important to get the language and analogies even righter than you have.

    First off, most people who talk about this problem use the term 800-lb gorilla. Wrong analogy. The 800-lb gorilla comes from the ancient joke, “Where does an 800-lb gorilla sleep? Anywhere he wants.” The point of the joke is that everybody explicitly knows the gorilla is there and in charge, and nobody is pretending otherwise.

    “Elephant” is much better, but still doesn’t go far enough. Elephants are huge, but they’re generally friendly, really intelligent, kinda cute (although maybe a little tough on the nostrils), and if they squish you, it will usually be by accident.

    There are really two kinds of issues here. One is the kind that people are afraid to bring up because they fear consequences. These are Emperor’s New Clothes issues – ones where a person in authority has a blind spot. A client once gave me a great description of these issues. They are, he said, the worst kept secrets in the company.

    The other kind are issues that everyone knows exists, but NO ONE, including the person in charge wants to deal with because dealing with them will require unpleasant decisions, conversations and actions. Like, perhaps, we know there’s someone we need to fire, but he’s been here a long time, we like him, etc., etc. My suggestion: don’t think of that issue as a nice, benign elephant wandering around the company. Think of it, and describe it, as a great big dead moose lying smack in the middle of the conference table.

    When five people are sitting around THAT table, they will find it damned hard not to talk about the moose.

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