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The elephant in the room

The elephant in the room is the leadership crisis in South Africa. While the focus seems to be on the President, the ANC, government and the public sector, it is fair to say that there is a leadership crisis in South Africa, period.

We need strong leadership to restore confidence in the country, including investor confidence, to build the economy, to build a strong, united, morally robust, ethical society, and to lift millions of South Africans out of poverty. All of these goals require strong leadership from all sectors of society.

Thinking about “the elephant in the room” reminded me of a trip to the Okavango Delta last year. At times there seemed to be an elephant “behind every bush.”

Our guide was a mine of information, and we learnt a great deal about elephants. It was remarkable how we soon able to identify some elephant families.

I found it very disturbing to come across three dead baby elephants over a three day period.  I never realised how vulnerable baby elephants are. Although I know this is how nature works, I was disturbed nevertheless by a feeding frenzy, which I witnessed. We came across a dead baby elephant, surrounded by Marabou storks. Having seen the storks in action – bloodied beaks and chests, squabbling to get to the carcass, I can fully understand why these birds are often called the undertaker bird.

The scene reminded me that just as the wild can be treacherous and unforgiving, the corporate world can also be a dangerous and hostile place. It made me question whether we do enough to protect our young, inexperienced employees, to ensure that they mature and prosper. It also made me question whether we do enough to support small businesses, which often face large competitors. I am not convinced that we are sufficiently nurturing as corporates or corporate citizens.

During a three day period, we witnessed a limping, baby elephant which had lost part of its trunk and had an injured back leg desperately trying to keep up with a large family of elephants. Our guide told us that the mother had been killed. The orphan sought the protection of another family. Although it had not yet been accepted by the family of elephants it had tagged onto, it was only a matter of time before this happened.

This incident reminded me of the corporate space. Do we do enough to welcome newcomers into our organisations, particularly if they are from a different culture, or perhaps from a different nationality? Do these individuals, have the assurance that they will eventually be accepted and become part of the corporate family? At least the traumatised baby elephant can look forward to the fact that his persistence will pay off – he will eventually be accepted as part of this elephant family. Can we say the same of all new recruits in our organisations?

Are we sensitised to the fact that there may be people in the organisation who like the baby elephant have suffered personal trauma? Do we do enough to accept, support and embrace them?

While researching this article I came across an inspiring clip on YouTube (unfortunately video no longer available). A baby elephant got stuck in a water channel. His mother had tried for many hours to save him, but a number of lionesses were moving in for the kill. Out of the blue, another elephant family came to the rescue. They kept the lionesses at bay while the matriarch from the group of rescuers was eventually able to get the baby elephant onto its feet. With the support of the rescue party, mother and son were able to survive what appeared to be a hopeless situation.

As different departments and divisions in organisations, are we always willing often at great risk to ourselves, to save and help others, who may be floundering? Are we sufficiently tuned in to carry someone else’s burden, when they are exhausted or overwhelmed?  As a leader, will you stand up and be counted – will you be the matriarch, who leads her division to help another individual or division in times of trouble?

In addressing the “elephant in the room” in South Africa we can learn a great deal from elephants – perhaps the lesson to take away is perhaps we too would do well to learn from our own matriarchs. Perhaps we should appoint more matriarchs into leadership positions?

Like elephant families, we would do well under the leadership of strong, protective leaders, who we trust. Like elephant young, young, inexperienced employees would do well to learn from strong role models – this would empower them and teach the importance of unity; they would also learn courage and the importance of going the extra mile, even at personal risk, to help others.

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