The elephant and the rider

We like to think of ourselves as rational creatures. We sift the evidence, weigh the pros and cons, and take decisions based on clear understanding of the facts.

Except we don’t.

In his book the Righteous Mind, psychologist and author Jonathan Haidt explains that our thought process works like a rider sitting on an elephant. The rider is the rational, thoughtful mind. The elephant is the instinctive, immediately-reactive subconscious.

When faced with a new situation, or a decision to make, in the blink of an eye the elephant decides whether to turn left or right. Then the rational rider looks for information that supports the elephant’s choice. And rejects anything that implies the elephant was wrong.

The rider can’t change the elephant’s direction. Once the elephant has turned, the path is set in stone for a while.


This has huge implications for communication, change and how we influence one another.

If you want to set or shift someone’s mindset about something, you have to speak to the elephant first. Set up a situation that will provoke an emotional response in the direction you want.

If someone’s elephant has turned left, it won’t matter how cleverly you craft your memo to the rider explaining that they should have gone the other way. It’s already too late.

Thanks to Kristin Noelle from for letting me use her wonderful image.


Have a confidant

Leading can be lonely. 

It doesn’t matter if you’re at the very top of your organisation, on the first rung of the leadership ladder, or just trying really hard to make a powerful difference from within the ranks. 

Leadership is about sticking your neck out, challenging the status quo or the groupthink, taking a little more than your share of the blame and a little less than your share of the credit… All of these things take effort and energy. They all require you to set yourself apart a little. 

It’s vital, therefore, that you have someone to turn to. In those moments where it all gets a bit much and you’re just weary of it all. To sense-check your thinking when the balance of pros and cons is complex. To offer understanding and comfort. Or a kick up the backside. 

If you can find someone who will always be on your side, even when they see things differently, who looks at the organisation the way you do, who knows and trusts you and who you would share anything with in the knowledge that they would treat it carefully… you’ll have a powerful thing. 

Find yourself a confidant. Be one for someone else. It will help your soul. And your impact. 

Ask better questions

Do you ever find yourself asking things like…

“Why won’t they just send me the information in the way that I need it?”

“When will John realise that he’s taking this in the wrong direction?”

“Who is supposed to deal with this?”

These sorts of questions reinforce a notion that we’re powerless in the face of our difficulties. We’re waiting for someone else to do something differently or behave differently or step in and solve the problem. They all say “It’s someone else’s fault!”

In his brilliant book: QBQ – The Question Behind the Question; John Miller says this…


By this he means… When you find yourself asking questions like those above… When you find yourself shifting blame away from you… Refocus your mindset by asking the question behind the question (or QBQ). Which is essentially always:

What can *I* do to make the situation better?

You can only ever truly control your own actions. Waiting for others to do things differently before you move on, means you’re giving up ownership and accountability for making progress and setting yourself up as a victim of circumstance.

Better to let go of what you can’t control and instead shift something that IS in your power.

Your mindset will be better and you’ll likely make a positive difference in the process.

What do YOU think?

Or maybe that should be “What do you THINK?”

Often in a discussion there are various sides to take into account. If we look at things from one perspective a particular course of action seems obvious. But when we move our viewpoint, other options come into play and appear equally as valid. In such circumstances it can be difficult to know what to do.

If you are “leading from above” you’re  expected to listen to all the options, the pros and cons of each, and arrive at a decision about the way forward.

If you’re not the “leader from above” head honcho, you still have an opportunity to lead from below or within. But only if you’re willing to come to your own view about what you think should be done. And say it out loud.

It’s all very well to understand the context, the various options and the pros and cons of each. It is absolutely necessary to be sure that the discussion group has all of that in front of them. But the only way you “steer” a discussion is by coming to your own conclusion and being willing to state it publicly.

This can be hard. Especially if you think your final view doesn’t match where you think “the leader” will end up, or goes against what other powerful figures in the discussion think. But those are often the moments when it is most important that you state your opinion.

Now. I’m not advocating career suicide. If you know that Mrs X will make sure you get sacked if you go against her in public… Well… You have to pick your battles and choose how to fight them.

But if your unique perspective on a problem, which comes from your unique experience, knowledge and understanding of the context, is at odds with others in the room, there’s every chance they’re missing something important.

It might be that stating your opinion doesn’t change the end result. The boss might still choose to place more weight on a different view. You have to accept that this might happen.

But the capacity to weigh the pros and cons of various options and come up with a clear view on what to do is a crucial leadership skill.

The very best teams are able to engage with the different options in a complex situation, have members of the group speak clearly on different sides of the argument and then proceed with the final decision as a unified group.

So if you want to be in a powerful team, if you want to steer that team as it moves forwards, practise deciding what you would do if you were in charge and saying it out loud in a way that contributes positively to the decision-making process.

You’ll be exercising your leadership muscles. And people will notice.

How we communicate matters

I made a mistake yesterday. 

I raised an issue in an email that I should have brought up face to face first. I needed an email record that I’d addressed it, but I should have done that after a proper conversation. 

Email strips away facial expression, nuance and the ability to respond immediately to concerns. 

Having sent the email yesterday afternoon I was annoyed at myself to find three emails sent at later and later times in the evening from my colleague. He was feeling threatened, undermined and indignant. All understandable. All unnecessary. 

It was a sensitive issue. I should have predicted the reaction and adjusted my approach accordingly. 

Difficult topics should always be raised face to face first, and then followed up in writing later. 

If you get it wrong, as I did, acknowledge it quickly. Apologise. Don’t roll back from a position you need to take. But do accept you could have handled it better. 

It is inevitable that you’ll get it wrong sometimes. 

Being willing to own up when you do is vital if you want to maintain the respect of your colleagues and encourage an environment in which healthy necessary challenge is welcome. 

Leading from wherever

In a post on thinking about where you sit I introduced a model of every organisation’s structure, with you at it’s centre.


So how do you lead from within? From below and to the side?

We tend to think of “leadership advice” as being designed to help the leader sitting up high build success by working better with the group of people supposed to follow her. In other words, it’s always about leading from above.

But just about every leadership lesson ever written can be applied whatever your situation.

For example… Many lists of leadership characteristics state that leaders must have vision and focus. The image we tend to draw from this is the CEO painting an inspiring picture of a shining future and keeping the troops clear-minded on the one or two key things needed to get there.

But this idea applies to everyone.

Your organisation may have a top-level leader who has set a clear “vision”. So what is YOUR vision for what that means in YOUR part of the business? Or for YOUR role in the hierarchy?

What are the one or two things YOU need to focus on in order to bring that local vision into being? The things that should be on YOUR important but not urgent to do list?

Whatever the leadership technique or approach or idea, wherever you sit in the hierarchy, you can ask yourself “How can apply this to my work, from where I am, in a way that helps our organisation get better?”

Successful organisations challenge and encourage all of their people to think this way.

Start doing so without encouragement and you’ll be leading powerfully from within.

Necessary challenge

Are you always right? Is your boss? Are your colleagues?

Probably not. 

Supposing that we’re often right, though… how do we know when we’re off track?

Someone tells us. 

Someone who is paying attention, who understands the circumstances, who understands you, who is confident enough to pull you up and say… Hang on. Are you sure?

Who has been that person for you? Remember to thank them. 

Have you recently had an opportunity to be that person for someone else? Did you go for it? Or back away?

Learn how to challenge while maintaining collegiality. Cultivate an environment where constructive challenge is seen as fundamental to making good decisions. 

You’ll end up being right more often.