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The Elephant an icon of new style leadership

By Wayne Visser

This article explores the remarkable traits of the elephant, as a metaphor that can be applied to a new style leadership that we need, in order to create more sustainable businesses and, ultimately, a more sustainable world.


Sustainability constitutes nothing less than a set of new rules in the game of business. If companies are to survive and thrive in this changing environment, they are going to need a new generation of leadership skills. The old top management style - typical of the impressive predatory instincts of the lion - is increasingly going to become a liability. Relentlessly hunting bigger profits, reduced costs, higher share prices, greater market share and more extravagant executive packages, while compromising broader social and environment goals, is going to come back to bite. Merciless lion companies will find themselves bleeding, some even mortally wounded.

The fact of the matter is that lion-like tendencies in modern business and our capitalist economy have failed to create a sustainable world. Probably just the opposite. All the indicators are pointed in the wrong direction, whether they are measuring climate change and biodiversity loss, or poverty and income inequality. Hence, the future calls for different strengths. For inspiration, we turn to the mighty elephant - a wise leader.

Balanced economic, social and environmental performance - the triple bottom line - is the new test of corporate success for the 21st century.


Elephant - An Icon of Leadership

The elephant is a truly amazing creature. It is an animal that has been respected, revered, even worshipped, in many of the world's cultures for thousands of years. While the Western world has been obsessed with the power symbol of the lion, the East has long held the elephant as their supreme animal icon.

In Hinduism, the oldest and most pervasive religion of the Indian sub-continent, elephants hold high status. In their Creation story, elephants are accorded the title of 'bearers and keepers of the universe'. Furthermore, one of the Hindu gods, Ganesh, who is the protector of wisdom, erudition and well-being, bears the head of an elephant on a human body. Elephant legends also surround Guatama Siddhartha, the Buddha: some depicting the white elephant as the original carrier of his soul, while in others the elephant protects him from harm. Even today, Indian elephants are regarded as sacred, and many are given garland-laden funerals.

In India, elephants have also long been associated with kings. The Book of Old Indian Elephant Lore states that "elephants are consubstantial with kings" and "the Creator of the world created the regal elephant for the salvation of the world, and endowed him with majestic power and splendour." Elephants, placed on the same level as kings since ancient times, have therefore remained closely associated with India's rulers and their ceremonial occasions throughout history.

Of course, it is not just in the East that elephants have enjoyed special cultural and religious status. There is a particularly rich tradition of honouring the elephant in Africa. According to some traditions, elephants are reincarnations of gods who have been slain in the unseen land of the sky. Others believe that elephants live for hundreds of years and are reborn again and again in some magical way.

The association with political leadership is also strong. The iconic leader of the Zulu nation, Shaka, was called 'son of the elephant' and the king of the Swazi nation is still today known as 'the great elephant'. In praise songs, the elephant gets a series of impressive titles: 'animal of our kings', 'lord of the trees', 'master of the valleys', 'king of creation' and 'servant of the great Earth Mother'. There are also many African legends about the time before people lived on earth, when all the animals of the bush lived together under one king - Elephant. The stories all describe this time as one of peace, justice and prosperity, for Elephant was a wise ruler. Lion, the great deceiver, made all kinds of attempts to become king, but no one took his efforts seriously. They all knew that it was Elephant who possessed all the qualities of genuine leadership.

About the Author

Wayne Visser is Founder and CEO of CSR  International  ( and the author/editor of seven books, including five on the role of business in society, the most recent of which are Making A Difference and The A to Z of Corporate Social Responsibility.

Before getting his PhD in Corporate Social Responsibility (Nottingham University, UK), Wayne was Director of Sustainability Services for KPMG and Strategy Analyst for Cap Gemini in South Africa.

He holds an MSc in Human Ecology (Edinburgh University, UK) and a Bachelor of Business Science in Marketing (Cape Town University, South Africa).

Wayne lives in Cambridge, UK, and enjoys art, writing poetry, spending time outdoors and travelling in his home continent of Africa. Much of his writing and art is on


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