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Leadership by and for rider/elephants

written by Dave Shearon 18 August 2007

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.

Rider and Elephant

Rider and Elephant

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.




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Senia 19 August 2007 - 3:02 pm

Hi Dave,

On your two suggestions:

1) You say leaders should align their riders and elephants. When I was at Stanford Business School in 1999, AOL Time Warner former head Jerry Levine came to speak to a small group of us, and although I was off at a job interview those few days, a friend told me that the most important thing that he said was that as a leader – and he pointed up and down along his core – the most important thing is to stay balanced, to have a strong core.
Dave, that sounds like what you’re saying – to have a strong core of emotion-and-reason-aligned.

2) I once heard a CEO say that one of the pieces of advice she most follows is to not get into situations where her employees “check themselves at the door” – she wants to make sure that they bring their brains as well as their gut and their emotions and their beliefs to work – so that they can remain aligned.

Thanks, Dave,

Kathryn Britton 23 August 2007 - 2:22 pm

Back in our MAPP days, four of us spent time trying to understand authenticity. Being true to yourself is a bit too generic. It’s a little bit like saying it’s the rider’s job just to understand and follow the elephant. But we all have both positive and negative urges. So the elephant is not going in a single direction. And most of us don’t want to follow it everywhere it might go.

We decided that authenticity meant acting in accordance with your values. Then it becomes the rider’s job to understand values and make the difficult decisions that they sometimes bring up, for example, when two different values conflict. A well-trained elephant has habits that make it follow its values most of the time without conscious thought from the rider. It can also make the rider aware that it is straying from values by giving him a physically bumpy ride.

I guess that’s just an embellishment on the rider/elephant idea, but it certainly made many things come clear in our discussion of authenticity.

Dave Shearon 28 August 2007 - 6:22 pm

Senia, yep, alignment is part of it. Broaden and build, happiness leads to success, etc. — all part of it. And, once aligned, learning when and how to “trust your gut”, i.e., let the power of unconscious thought analyze and prioritize and relate so you make better decisions. And, try to lead the organization that lets others be balanced, intuitive, thoughtful, reflective, but action-oriented leaders. Other people matter.

Dave Shearon 28 August 2007 - 6:24 pm

Kathryn, I like you’re point about the elephant going in multiple directions. I think that’s why, “What do you want,” can be such a powerful question — parts of us want different and conflicting things. And values and their prioritization do seem to come into play at those points.

Galba Bright of Tune up your EQ 26 January 2008 - 10:16 am

Hello Dave:

The elephant/rider notion is a powerful metaphor. You ask some thought provoking questions. Most of the leaders who I’ve observed that managed organisational change effectively mixed reason and emotion. The key deficit that I’ve seen is when leaders end up being overly logical. In my own life, I seek to integrate reason and emotion. When I’m able to do so, I enjoy greater peace of mind.

Alice Vlietstra 1 February 2008 - 12:09 pm

I like the rider/elephant metaphor. Often one can be
incongruent due to hidden unconscious patterns and beliefs.
Focusing on the positive can help include them in a functional way.

mac2000 19 June 2008 - 12:23 pm

The animals are not have steady mind….
The rider will always controls the elephant..
But we can riding in a elephant is such a different experience………
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kim 29 September 2008 - 9:17 pm

Totally agree with mac2000 !

Raymond Bokenkamp 17 November 2009 - 10:00 am

Elephant literally means “elevate manifestation” , the elephant is historically associated with leadership.

As leaders we seek to manifest ideas by skillful action, accountability, authenticity, commitment, reading the field, ability to change direction, and aligning of all these aspects.

I believe that positive psychology is an important tool in breaking status quo / negative patterns / stuckness and ultimately the elevation (there we go again) out of these patterns.

When you ride an elephant you and are “in-tune”, you know it and it seems the elphant does also. How ever can you accept days that your dharma is not “in-tune”? Great leaders accept bad days and trust that the process works.


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Dave Shearon 17 November 2009 - 8:16 pm

Interesting comment, Raymond. What language is that derivation from?

Raymond Bokenkamp 22 November 2009 - 10:01 am

Thanks David.

It’s derived from both Latin and Greek.


Blog: myhealthpanda.blogspot.com
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