Leadership Lessons from the Biggest Brains on Earth

Leadership Lessons from the Biggest Brains on Earth 1024 768 The Body Corporate

Intelligence is viewed as a prized leadership asset. It seemed logical then to find the largest brain on earth to teach me more about leadership. The trail took me quickly to the African elephant. I have crept through thorns on hands and knees to get close to a highly protective mother with calf. I have been charged by an enraged bull. I have slept in the shade of a giant fig tree as a herd slipped silently past me, waking me with their splashing and trumpeting in the cool waters. I have learnt many interesting facts about the elephant. Three lessons stand out above all others.

Empathetic Leadership

Isn’t it curious that the largest terrestrial animal chooses to lead through love rather than physical intimidation? It is true that size and strength are important in the selection of the leader, normally the oldest and largest member of the herd. This is clearly important when defending the heard against outside attack. But from that point forward, her default style is gentle. That’s right, her style. Like many other highly successful species, the elephant leaves leadership to females. The health and success of the species is in the caring hands of matriarchal leaders. The elephant herd is considered to be one of the closest animal units. Females leave their herd only if they die or are captured and removed by humans. Which human organization boasts this loyalty?

Elephants enjoy a rich social existence. They graze close together, touching and caressing each other. They stay connected through a complex communication system that includes vocalization, body language and seismic rumbles (deep grumbles and growls that are transmitted through the ground by vibration). Their emotional intelligence is housed in the well-developed hippocampus, part of the limbic system in the brain. It drives grief, compassion, self-awareness, cooperation and even humor. There are many legends, most of which have been substantiated, that describe elephants taking special care of the sick and injured. Unlike most other animals, they grieve for their dead.

I don’t believe that there is any leadership asset as powerful as the ability to accurately assess the emotional and mental state of a team and its individual members, to demonstrate understanding and acceptance, and to communicate with profound sincerity in a way that reaches not only the minds but also the hearts of colleagues and followers. This is empathetic leadership, elephant style.

Situational Democracy

It appears that some elephants are natural leaders. They are confident and well connected, and demonstrate leadership influence from a young age. Successful matriarchs are elected to their leadership roles. Rather than asserting dominance through their physical prowess, they are respected for their wisdom, particularly in times of crises. At first it puzzled scientists who noticed the debate that takes place in the herd when it makes a decision, such as where to move next to graze. It appears that many “voices” are taken into consideration. The matriarch can be seen to express an opinion, and may head in a particular direction. But in the end, in non-crisis situations, a respectful democracy prevails, and decisions often go against the matriarch. The combined will of the adult leadership group succeeds. Unlike humans, the leader doesn’t disappear in an angry tirade. She humbly turns to follow her people to the next grove of sweet fruit and leaves. How refreshing.

All this changes in time of crisis. When the decisions become critical to survival, the herd looks to the matriarch and her superior memory and wisdom for direction. She is the chief repository of institutional knowledge. Her deep social and ecological memory, her superior skill at negotiating tricky social situations, particularly within the extended clan to which the herd belongs, and her advanced ability to nurture and groom the internal social climate of her herd differentiate her as the leader. In times of crisis, her voice rules.

Perhaps I declare my own personal preference in identifying this as a winning leadership style, but I’m pretty sure that a majority of competent senior colleagues would agree with me. In case you need reassurance, it has been definitively shown that elephant herd success is directly related to the maturity of the matriarch, and democratic resilience is a key feature of successful herds. How better to train future leaders?

Learning Culture

Which brings me to the third reason I propose the elephant to be a model of great leadership. Like humans, the elephant uses its huge brain for learning, understanding that this provides selective advantage in the wild. The matriarch is Chief Learning Officer of the herd, based on her deep knowledge of ecological and environmental hazards. After a super-long gestation (almost 2 years!), a baby elephant is born with very little instinctive behavior. The mother and aunts educate the infant. Young daughters are involved in childcare even before they have their own babies. This provides the hands-on (sorry, trunks-on) training for when they raise their own offspring. And they don’t just train their little sisters. The matriarchal educators must train little boys to become young men who will have to tear themselves away from the herd to do manly duty such as procreation and territory building in relative isolation.

The advanced mental abilities and superior learning culture of the elephant enable behavior not seen in many other species. A mother will teach her calf to break and use a branch to flick at pesky insects threatening to eat their way through her tough skin. Similarly, adults will cooperate with others in solving challenging problems.

Each time I assimilate to a new organization I look for a matriarch (or patriarch) that has the collective memory and wisdom of the herd. They have provided invaluable advice for onboarding, and powerful long-term guidance, especially in troubled times. Learning cultures foster growth and innovation.

I commend the elephant as a leadership icon to all who strive for success.

Have fun,


Dr. Roddy Carter unlocks peak performance through catalytic coaching, life-changing workshops and motivational speeches; empowering individuals, leaders and their organizations to unleash their fullest potential.

Photo credit: elephantsforever