When we ask people to reflect on great leadership moments, they identify a common theme. It is the ability to understand the self and others and put this intelligence into purposeful effect. In other words, Emotional Intelligence is a key difference maker for great leaders.

Much of our work at Humanergy helps people manage the people side of their business and increase their Emotional Intelligence (EI). Daniel Goleman identified five components of EI – Self-awareness, self-regulation, motivation, empathy and social skill. The challenge, especially for more technically-minded people, is to boost their EI. We found the elephant and rider analogy to be powerful and helpful.

Several recent books have expanded upon the rider and the elephant analogy. Chip and Dan Heath in Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard talk about the rider as the thinking aspect of decisions and the elephant being the passionate, emotional side. The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom by Jonathon Haidt explores the conscious mind (the rider) and the unconscious mind (the elephant).

When thinking about Emotional Intelligence and leadership, the rider (intellect and logic) often thinks he’s in charge of the elephant (emotions). Worse yet, some riders don’t admit they’re on an elephant at all. When a leader doesn’t master EI, influence suffers and results wane.

I am reminded of a coworker who was brilliant, capable and at the top of his field. His Achilles heel was the interpersonal aspects. He regularly received feedback that he was cold, abrasive and difficult to work with. Over time, and with consistent effort, he was able to adopt some practices that helped a great deal. He started asking more questions in meetings and involving others in important projects. He may never be a people person by nature, but he does have a better understanding of the impact of his behavior on others. He is actively training his elephant and rider to work together.

What’s the status of your elephant and rider and their relationship? Are you aware of others’ elephants and adapting to them? (Think of a herd of massive, invisible elephants crashing around at your next team meeting.)

Wisdom in human relations is a prerequisite of excellent leadership. That’s why it is so tempting to immediately think, “Yea, I have a handle on my emotions” or “Sure, I get what’s going on with Bob.” Remember that elephants have a mind of their own and can’t be driven around like a golf cart. It takes time and consistent effort to master the rider/elephant partnership.

It is reassuring to know that everyone’s riding an elephant which can be hard to understand and sometimes out of control. We are all in the same jungle – in need of elephant riding lessons.


Need help training your elephant? Contact Humanergy.

Photo from iStockphoto.