The Executive and the Elephant by Richard L. Daft

Richard L. Daft is a professor at the Owen Graduate School of Management, Vanderbilt University, where he specializes in the study and teaching of leadership. I had the privilege of meeting Dick several years ago, when he invited me to speak to one of his classes on “Culture as a Leadership Tool.”

The Executive and the Elephant by Richard L. Daft

I currently speak a couple of times a year to his classes and it is always a treat. When he told me about his new book, The Executive and the Elephant: A Leader’s Guide to Building Inner Excellence, I knew it would be perfect for my readers.

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This is a book about leading the most important person you will ever lead: yourself. I have said this for years. Now Dick has written an entire book about it. In the very first chapter, he highlights the difference between knowing and doing:

Kings, heads of government, and corporate executives have control over thousands of people and endless resources, but often do not have mastery over themselves. From a distance, larger-than-life leaders may look firmly in control of their businesses and their personal behavior. What about up close? Personal mastery is a difficult thing.

Indeed it is. According to Dick, the reason is that each of us has two selves: one is thoughtful, circumspect, and rational. He calls this the inner executive. The other self is impulsive, emotional, and habit-bound. He calls this the inner elephant. The trick is to teach the inner executive how to calm down, train, and guide the inner elephant.

This idea of the two selves in conflict is not new. It has a long tradition in Western culture. It is also mentioned in many Eastern traditions. More compelling perhaps is the fact that each of us know this to be true from our own experience. The Apostle Paul expressed it this way:

I can will it, but I can’t do it. I decide to do good, but I don’t really do it; I decide not to do bad, but then I do it anyway. My decisions, such as they are, don’t result in actions. Something has gone wrong deep within me and gets the better of me every time. (see Romans 7:18–20, The Message)

The Executive and the Elephant explores this phenomenon in depth by first teaching you how to recognize these two selves. You can’t resolve the inner conflict if you aren’t aware of it. I found the section on the ways we mislead or delude ourselves to be particularly insightful. This is the stuff that far too many leaders are afraid to confront.

The book then teaches you how to start leading yourself. It all begins by becoming more intentional with your life, your issues, and your goals. It also explains how to discover your inner resources, expand your awareness, and become more mentally focused.

Dick provides numerous practical exercises that encourage you to visualize your outcomes, write down your intentions, and set deadlines. He provides scores of real-world examples from the lives of other leaders. I especially liked his advice about calming down and—to cite Stephen Covey—putting more space between the stimulus and the response.

Christian readers may be uncomfortable with some of Dick’s suggestions. He draws heavily from the meditative traditions of Eastern mysticism. But if you can set this aside, reframe the exercises from the vantage point of your own worldview, or just discard those that make you particularly uncomfortable, you will still find a wealth of wisdom and practical advice in this book. I certainly did.

I wish I had had this book earlier in my career. Too many books about leadership start with the assumption that leadership is something you do to others. Unfortunately, they ignore the issue of self-mastery. As a result, leaders are not as effective as they could be. There is no more powerful leadership tool than a person who is living his or her own life intentionally. This book provides a guide for doing just that.

I gave away 100 autographed copies of this book to some of the readers who commented below, who told me why they wanted the book.
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  • David Black

    I've been doing research and teaching workshops on self leadership ever since I've discovered it really is the key to sustainable ministry. I am the founder of Camp Sonshine International and we reach thousands of children around the globe and I feel this book would give me some more tools to equip those who serve the children. I even got a twitter account to be in on your invitation. Thank-you for planting seeds in so many of our hearts
    David Black.

  • GBM

    Hi Michael,

    I found your blog a couple weeks ago while looking for resources to help me develop my leadership skills. I'm the head of my campus government, and of a student organization, and at 20 years old I haven't had much time to learn. Of course, that also means I've got a lot of time to apply the lessons I can pick up now.

    Self-leadership has been the biggest challenge I've faced in my academic career (including, no surprise, combating procrastination) and I'd really appreciate more tools to push myself forward – especially free ones! I'll definitely read the book, and I hope it'll help in my imminent transition to the real world.


  • Raphael Husbands

    Mr. Hyatt, I need this book like a fish needs water. My Inner Executive is screaming at me "Get the book!!"
    He'd get it himself but my Inner Elephant is sitting on him! My life has been trampled by my Inner Elephant but now it's time to stop the stampede. Time to drive that Inner Elephant towards my goals instead of trying to avoid being stepped on. So bring on that manual so I can get to elephant-whispering.
    P.S. I'm going to my 1st Christian men's retreat in 2 weeks and my chosen roommate's name is also Michael Hyatt. True story! Hopefully that influences your decision.

  • April Rowen

    Oh boy, a leadership book with the words "executive" and "elephant" all in the same title. Sold! (Rubs hands together) My facebookies are going to love this…

  • dheagle93

    Well, one of my self-leadership issues is this inability not to try and get free books from you (or nearly anywhere!), so perhaps, reading the Executive and the Elephant will help with that!

    On the heavier side, this looks like a good read to help me put something under the phrase "Be more disciplined!" as a leader.

    I will certainly read it. As soon as I get done with the last book you sent me, and before my next Booksneeze review. (Seriously, you and Thomas Nelson are about due a complete shelf or two in my office.)

    Doug Hibbard

  • Mighty

    This sounds like a great book Michael! I think I need this book to improve my mastery of myself, my knowledge and my will do things excellently. :)

  • David Rockett

    thanks michael…looks like a great book & other good stuff.

  • Kathy Fannon

    I was thinking how very much this sounds like what I'm currently being taught at Integrative Nutrition about looking to ones self to recognize and resolve our inner conflict and embracing our dark side to use it for light. I get the basic 'truth' of what they are saying, but would prefer to be taught from more of a Christian worldview. So are you saying this book IS from a Christian perspective with Eastern flavor? Or not so much Christian? I may be interested in picking this one up to supplement what I'm already being taught.

  • Jose Javier Perez

    I received a copy from you and I just wanted to say that by the end of the first chapter I was feeling like God wanted me to have this book. It hits on one of the great frustrations both at work and in personal life. Thanks Michael!

  • Malkani10

    I’ve always battles with what doctors call Bi-polar. But i believe this to be a misnomer. This book seems to describe a battle that I must fight everyday. Medication has not helped because I have received no training in how to control my darker impulses. Please send me this book so that I can, most importantly, help myself and then, others.



    I would like a copy ofnthis book as well because for some time I’ve been teach my young leaders class on self discipline but in my research I have found that not much is taught on this art or lifestyle. Thanks for this article.

    God bless

    JL Cruz

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