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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