How controlling your ‘inner elephant’ will make you a stellar executive

Vanderbilt management professor gives practical steps to fix leadership flaws

Media Contact:
Amy Wolf
Senior Public Affairs Officer
Vanderbilt University
(615) 322-NEWS | amy.wolf@vanderbilt.edu

Aug 26, 2010

Whether you’re the CEO of a fortune 500 company or just trying to successfully manage yourself, Vanderbilt Owen Graduate School of Management professor Richard Daft says you must learn to control your “inner elephant.”

Daft found that everyone has two sides to his or her personality. The “executive” is objective, rational, and responsible and the “elephant” is emotion-driven, impulsive and habitual. Daft said that truly successful leaders must learn to recognize both sides and follow practical exercises to learn to control their inner elephant and ultimately change a weakness in their behavior.

“I find that virtually every leader has a bottleneck within them, one thing that if they could remove it—if they could be just a little less critical-minded toward other people or if they could be more focused and attentive— they could be a much better leader overall,” said Daft. “What this book does is help them identify that weak link and remove it, so they can be the best leader that they have the capacity to be.”

Daft, an expert in leadership, organizational performance, and change management, combined research in management, psychology, neuroscience and Eastern spirituality, along with years of teaching, executive coaching, and personal application, into a book called The Executive and the Elephant: A Leader’s Guide for Building Inner Excellence.

The six mental mistakes every leader makes:

   1. Reacting too quickly
   2. Inflexible thinking
   3. Wanting control
   4. Emotional avoidance and attraction
   5. Exaggerating the future
   6. Chasing the wrong gratifications

All of these are tied to a person’s emotional and impulsive side, or their elephant.

“The whole idea of the executive is to be objective and not to interpret things just based on your own likes and dislikes, your own hang-ups, your own issues. You have to be able to detach from that and be able to see the other point of view, the big picture, with some level of objectivity. When people can be in that place, they make wonderful decisions. It’s when they get anchored in their own neediness, their own greed, they get into trouble.”

Daft said that people can remove a lot of inner struggle by being in the moment and accepting their “elephant” but not let the elephant control them or their behavior.

Daft said that real change can only come from practice. He describes more than a dozen exercises that are grounded in practical application to help leaders control their elephant and change bad behaviors. He then gives examples of leaders who tried each individual approach and how it impacted each person. A few exercises include engaging and writing down your intentions; slow down your reaction time to think; and repeat a mantra.

“I’ve worked with a lot of executives who know what they should be doing, they’ve gotten feedback that they should do something differently or act differently with their employees, but they’re unable to execute the new behavior. I wrote this book not so much to tell them what to do, but how to change the behavior,” said Daft.

Daft has published 12 books, dozens of articles, and presented at more than 45 universities around the world. He also developed and managed the Center for Change Leadership, is a former associate dean at Owen, and is a fellow of the Academy of Management.

Daft is currently studying high performance mental models – which include cognitive models of high performing managers – and examining high performance management systems. He is also studying transactional versus transformational communication to engage people in organizational change.

“I know it sounds touchy feely, this idea of introspection and looking within, but it is so powerful. Know thyself. Know thyself has real power because once you know yourself, you can manage yourself. As long as you’re blind to your own bad habits, you’ve got no chance to be a strong leader,” said Daft.

Vanderbilt Owen Graduate School of Management is ranked as a top institution by BusinessWeek, the Wall Street Journal, U.S. News & World Report, Financial Times and Forbes. For more information about Owen, visit www.owen.vanderbilt.edu.