Managing ourselves is our biggest task as a leader. How well we manage ourselves determines the kind of leader we will be and the impact we will have.
Adapting Jonathan Haidt’s metaphor of the rider and the elephant, Richard Daft presents the executive (the voice of reason) and the elephant (impulsive and emotional) metaphor to help us to learn how to help our inner executive manage our inner elephant as needed to behave according to our best intentions—to better manage oneself.
One of the biggest problems we face as a result of our inner elephant’s tendency to distort reality. It’s one of the reasons we are so surprised when someone disagrees with us. Our internal elephant judges (our self and others), creates illusions (self-justification) and acts as our attorney (defends us and making us immune to reality).
In The Executive and the Elephant, Daft points out that our inner judge “sees things from a selfish point of view and has little empathy and consideration toward others. It is hard to be optimistic and motivate people when your mind is critical of them.” The judge will also become our own worst critic—“the automatic voice of blame and criticism inside your head that points out how inadequate you are.” Daft poignantly asks: “Can you be an effective leader when your mind is constantly finding fault with you?”
Daft illuminates some perceptual habits of the inner elephant that can get in the way of seeing the world accurately. Without a conscious effort to do otherwise, it is easy to fall prey to any or all of these six mental mistakes:
Reacting Too Quickly. As quickly as things are thrown at us, it’s a lot easier being reactive than being proactive. It’s easy to instantly judge, conclude and react based on small scraps of data rather than slowing down and remaining calm says Daft. Serious intention is required to slow things down. How we see things always appears so clear to us and it seems we can’t act on it soon enough. It’s what the elephant does. We have to engage our inner executive to avoid acting on wrong-headed conclusions.
Inflexible Thinking. The inner elephant doesn’t like to change its mind. After all, we believe what we think for obvious (to us) reasons. We don’t intentionally think the wrong thing. And we interpret the world around us according to our beliefs. “It is very hard to let go of your own gut feelings and mental preferences” says Daft. “It’s all you know. The mind-set, habits, and skills that made you successful tell you to stick to your guns. However, things change, and if the mind does not accept the current reality, it can create problems for everyone.”
Wanting Control. Your inner elephant is more comfortable when you’re in control. Of course, we only take control because if we didn’t things wouldn’t get done the way we think they should be done. But our satisfaction is at their expense. The desire for control can lead us to illusions—attempts to gain control (and think we have it) over the uncontrollable. A leader’s inner executive needs to learn to give control to others. Our job is to “engage a bigger picture of mission and purpose (inner executive) and let people be in control of their own work.”
Emotional Avoidance and Attraction. Even when we know we need to do something, our inner elephant can find reasons to avoid it. We procrastinate. We delay and intended course of action despite expecting to be worse off for the delay. Our inner elephant feels anxiety and creates an invisible barrier in our mind that prevents us from moving forward. Attraction can cause us problems by enslaving us to our desires. Desire for acceptance can cause to make decisions we wouldn’t otherwise make under the influence of our inner executive. About the desire for perfection, Daft writes:
A few of my MBA students are perfectionists who can’t restrain their desire to redo a group project to make it look the way they want, even after I explain that this behavior if fatal for leaders who have to accomplish work through others. Managers may also feel the need to act on their unthinking desire to be right rather than let other people shine, to perpetually find fault with other people’s ideas, to win every disagreement, to blame others when something goes wrong despite being culpable, or to speak harshly when upset.
Exaggerating the Future. Related to the emotional avoidance and attraction issues is our tendency to exaggerate outcomes. When our inner elephant wants to do something we tend to be overly optimistic about the future and underestimate the potential difficulties. When we don’t, we tend to overstate the potential problems. The problems are obvious. Objectivity is needed if we are to anticipate the future realistically. “The inner elephant tends toward positive or negative exaggerations about the future depending on its emotional orientation toward an object or event.”
Chasing the Wrong Gratification. The inner elephant is child-like and selfish. “Finding happiness is a challenge because the inner elephant often seeks things that do not provide lasting satisfaction.” We can be easily seduced into chasing after the wrongs things—things that don’t bring us lasting satisfaction.
Daft offers sensible techniques to get some mastery over your inner elephant. He writes, “Let’s face it: Your inner elephant has been running your life. For better or worse, everyone is on automatic pilot more than they realize.” Your best defense is to get to know your inner elephant. Slow down and reflect. While there are negatives, there are strengths that can be harnessed.
Every Leader’s Six Mental Mistakes