Dave Shearon, MAPP, applies positive psychology to both law and education. Dave writes articles about applications of Positive Psychology to law and education at his site. He co-authored the recently published book, Smart Strengths: Building Character, Resilience and Relationships in Youth. Full bio.
Dave's articles are here.
Jon Haidt in The Happiness Hypothesis suggests the metaphor of a rider on an elephant for how we live life. The rider is our conscious thoughts (and emotions). The elephant is our unconscious emotions (and thoughts). Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman refers to these as System 1 and System 2, but I find rider and elephant easier to remember. Either way, the metaphor has implications for leadership.
The rider is obviously the conscious, analytical part of our mind. It is extremely limited in capacity, requires significant effort, and is error prone. Ap Dijksterhuis’ experiments supporting the Unconscious Thought Theory demonstrate that the unconscious mind – the elephant – is much better at analyzing, organizing, prioritizing, weighting multiple factors to reach a decision. See David Pollay’s May 2, 2007 post.
The conscious mind is better at precise calculations and following rules. However, it also is subject to stereotyping and other framing errors, likely as a way of managing its limited data handling capacity. It is also, however, capable of communicating with other riders, setting goals and planning.
Barbara Fredrickson’s “Broaden and Build” theory of the role of positive emotions suggests that we experience positive emotions when the rider and elephant are in synch and working well together. Given the analytical power of unconscious thought demonstrated by Dr. Dijksterhuis, the power of this teamwork as demonstrated by Dr. Fredrickson makes sense. (Dr. Diksterhuis’ work also helps explain why Dr. Fredrickson’s research has shown that individuals experiencing positive emotions also overcome “own race bias” in recognizing faces.)
So, what of leadership? I’d suggest two thoughts. First, it is obviously important that a leader be a rider/elephant in harmony. When they are, the elephant can add amazing energy, power, and efficacy. For a visual image, try this youtube clip: Elephant Ball
Of course, if the elephant becomes out of synch with the rider, the rider is in trouble.
So, the first suggestion is clearly that leaders who are harmonious rider/elephant teams stand a much better chance of success. Does this mean that all great leaders were synchronous rider/elephants? Obviously not. This is psychology; there are patterns and probabilities, not certainty and always. But, for organizations working on leadership development, elephant/rider harmony should be an area of consideration.
The second suggestion is for leaders. Remember, you’re leading riders and elephants. How’s their harmony? What is your organization doing to promote that harmony? To disrupt it? Are your folks tapping their elephant abilities? This involves alignment with values, meaning, hope, optimism, happiness, and well-being. How are your folks?
So, what am I missing here? How can you make these ideas better? Let’s talk!
Haidt, J. (2006). The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom. New York: Basic Books.
Fredrickson, B. (2009). Positivity: Groundbreaking Research Reveals How to Embrace the Hidden Strength of Positive Emotions, Overcome Negativity, and Thrive. New York: Crown.