Research Paper By John Eustace
(Executive Coach, UK)
Think for yourself and let others enjoy the privilege of doing so too – Voltaire
How often has someone interrupted you or finished your sentence believing they knew what you were going to say? How often do you actively listen to what people are saying? How often do we allow people the time and space to think for themselves?
In the story that follows, any resemblance to characters in your own teams could be coincidental or surprisingly real!
Thirst for Inspiration
As the mists rolled over the Rift Valley and the cloud storms gathered, Sidi knew it had been a challenging year and was grateful the long-awaited rains were now coming. He was a proud leader, and liked to feel in control although, as he reflected on his own position, he felt at times he was not a natural leader and that his weaknesses would soon be found out. In reality, this was his own perception as he had kept the herd together under many challenging circumstances and they all respected him.
Lalla had been Sidi’s loyal companion for many years and she could see that everything was not well. She was perceptive and an elephant most of the herd would look to for advice. She loved spending time with the younger elephants Bandoola and Batyr who gave her energy in very different ways. Bandoola was adventurous and she loved to explore the bush while Batyr was more creative and she was always full of ideas, some of which appeared ‘off the wall’ although many were inspirational.
Kandula was the most aggressive of the herd always looking for confrontation. He would normally take the opposite viewpoint to others and thrived in these situations. Kasavan, on the other hand avoided conflict, tending to act as a referee in most discussions and usually taking the path of least resistance in a conflict.
The rains never arrived and some difficult decisions had to be made. Elephants were used to travelling many miles in search of food and water although as the rains failed again, Sidi knew the watering holes would be dry for miles around. They had known difficult years in the past and this year seemed tougher than most. In front of him was perhaps his greatest challenge yet as the herd’s existence depended on his actions. The current situation called for a new way of thinking. It was time for the elders of the herd to gather.
Sidi explained the situation at length and asked the elders for their ideas. Kandula was the first to speak and, true to form, he stated they should have moved further south towards the great lake when he suggested it last year when the rains failed. Kandula was the most skeptical of the herd and always keen to say what should have been done and rarely offering up a solution. This was not the positive, collaborative start Sidi was hoping for and although he knew the great lake had also dried up there was no benefit in arguing the case.
He asked Kasavan for his thoughts and the response was, as predicted, non-confrontational. He respected Kandula’s comments and suggested others should speak first to have a clearer understanding of the different ideas.
Sidi allowed everyone time to speak and whenever an elephant was interrupted, usually by Kandula, he would stop the discussion and emphasise how important it was for each elder to speak openly, without interruption or criticism. There was much feedback although none of the ideas were new and did not seem to offer a viable solution.
Sidi then asked Lalla for her input. She was viewed as the most balanced and wise elephant able to take a measured view on any subject before offering a considered opinion. In this case, to the surprise of Sidi, she decided to do something different. Instead of telling others her ideas, she asked Kasavan, an elephant not used to being the focus of attention and who was concerned how others would view his input. He was used to listening to others and was rarely able to provide ideas before someone interrupted him either assuming they knew what he was about to say or questioning him before he had finished. His initial thought was they should stay and wait for the rains to come as they surely would.
Lalla caught him by surprise with her next question. Kasavan, what are you assuming that makes you think we should stay here? He meekly replied that if the great lake was dry then everywhere else was probably dry so they stood a good a chance as anywhere if they stayed and conserved their energy and resources. She probed further, asking him if he knew there were other sources of water, what ideas would he have?
Kasavan was perplexed; he had never been asked a question like this before. He thought deeply for some time and Lalla was careful to remain silent, as were the others, to allow him the time to think – a rare occurrence in the elders meetings. After what seemed an eternity, Kasavan exclaimed ‘we could go south and see what we find.’ What else? Lalla asked
Again Kasavan was surprised Lalla had asked the question again. He had to think hard before exclaiming, we could ask the wildebeest as they travel hundreds of miles and must know where water is. What else? Lalla asked again
Kasavan was now thinking deeply as Lalla had provided the space for him to think and was asking powerful questions. We could gather a small search team who would be able to move swiftly in search of water. Anything else? Lalla asked and Kasavan said that was it.
Sidi liked the ideas and had his favourite however, before he spoke he wanted to hear the reaction of the others. Kandula spoke first and to everyone’s surprise he was impressed. He had never experienced this type of exploration before and congratulated Lalla on her insight and Kasavan on his ideas. Kandula suggested they should set up the search team, it should be a young team who were creative and not afraid to explore unknown areas. Bandoola and Batyr immediately came to mind and they were summoned to the elders meeting by Sidi.
They were nervous on arrival and soon settled down when Sidi assured them they were there to help with a challenge. He explained the situation and asked for their thoughts on how to find water. They were both silent and Bandoola could only say ‘how could we know, we are only young and always follow the herd?’
If you did know the answer what would it be? Sidi asked. They were now more confused than ever, how could they know the answer if they didn’t know? The elders did not interrupt, respecting the silence and waited for them to process their thoughts. Batyr was the first to speak. If it’s true the great lake has dried up then we shouldn’t go south. We need to use our skills and look for signs along the way. Bandoola was now excited at the thought of a new adventure and proposed they head west with a small team and then cover an arc circling north.
It was decided. Bandoola was to head the expedition aided by Batyr and a team of four other calves. They set off west the following morning after bidding farewell to the others. Sidi gave an inspirational talk to help them on their way and reminded each calve to think for themselves, allow others the time and space to reflect and work as a team. ‘It is from deep inside that the most profound ideas are hidden and only you can uncover this treasure’. The future of the herd rested on their shoulders and they were determined to find water motivated by Sidi’s words.
The sun had risen five times in their search and they seemed no closer to their objective. Bandoola was feeling dejected as she thought they would have found water already. The dry, parched soil offered little hope and they were fortunate to get sustenance from bushes along the way.
That evening as they rested, Batyr asked Bandoola what was on her mind. ‘I’m stuck’ she whispered, ‘I thought we would have been successful and already be heading back with the good news. Maybe it was the wrong decision to head west?’ This was not the time for despair and Batyr, using her knowledge of watching Lalla in action, asked Bandoola what she would do if she only had two days left to find water before they perished?
Bandoola was almost shocked by the certainty of the question. Batyr had learned from the elders to respect silence and allow Bandoola time to absorb the question and to think without interrupting her. She didn’t have to wait too long as she saw how Bandoola’s eyes lit up. ‘We need to split into pairs and travel in different directions’. What else? asked Batyr. We could ask the eagles for help to search from above and relay progress between each pair. What else? Batyr prompted. We could ask the giraffes to take leaves and fruit from the highest branches to sustain us on our journey. One more idea? We could ask the cheetahs to run ahead and explore areas identified by the eagles. This would save time on wasted treks and if we succeeded, there would be plenty of water for all.
The next day the enlarged team of elephants, cheetahs, eagles and giraffes set out on their journeys. Bandoola and Batyr stayed together and went north while the other two pairs headed east and west. This was team co-operation at its’ best with each member playing an important role to achieve a shared goal. Bandoola admitted to Batyr she was not used to asking for help and so glad she suggested it this time.
Meanwhile Sidi was wondering if he had made the right decision as nothing had been heard from the search party since they left over a week ago. Water levels were now dangerously low and the bushes were starting to wither. He decided to confide in Lalla, his most trusted companion.
All Sidi’s insecurities were returning. Did he really deserve to be the leader? Did he have the respect of the herd? Was he making the right decisions? Would the others see his weaknesses? What would happen if his latest decision proved fatal for the search team?
Lalla listened intensely, not interrupting and allowing Sidi time to process his thoughts. After a long pause, Lalla asked him what assumptions he was making to believe all these things? Sidi reflected, ‘sometimes I don’t think I should be the leader, by making poor decisions I would lose respect of the herd and if this happened I would lose control and fear for my future. I believe I may have sent out a young team on an impossible task and fear for their safety.
Lalla was adept at asking thought-provoking questions that allowed others to think deeply and from the heart. She seemed able to help others find their hidden treasures and explore new ways of thinking. ‘What is the positive opposite of those statements?’ she asked.
Sidi didn’t move, he was focused and slightly confused. The positive opposite, he thought for a moment and then stated ‘I am admired and respected as a leader, the decisions I make are based on feedback from the elders and I will always act in the herd’s best interest no matter how difficult the situation. The search team was young, fit and fast. They had the creativity and resolve to survive in the bush’.
Lalla explored further, ‘if you knew you were admired and respected as a leader, that you always listened to feedback from the elders and made decisions in the herd’s best interests and that the search team would eventually find water, what ideas would you have?
Now Sidi was thinking and Lalla could see a positive shift in his stance as if a weight had been lifted from his shoulders. ‘We need to start storing food and water and ration each elephant’s daily consumption’. What else? Lalla asked. ‘We need to conserve our energy and trust in the search team to find water’. What else? Lalla probed further. ‘We need to raise the herd’s morale and start regular community activities such as story telling and singing’.
Sidi’s eyes were wide open and Lalla could see the energy emerge. He was thinking positively with no fear of interruption or criticism and the ideas were flowing.
Lalla continued, ‘what else would you do if you knew you were admired and respected as a leader, that you always listened to feedback from the elders and made decisions in the herd’s best interests and that the search team would eventually find water? She waited and waited in silence for his answer and, when it came, even she was surprised – it felt as though he now believed in himself rather than acting as an imposter in his role.
‘We could prepare a heroes welcome for Bandoola, Batyr and the rest of the search team. This would energise the herd, keep them focused towards a common goal and lift their spirits. Sidi could hardly believe his own words! Through a process of powerful questions and active listening from Lalla, he had moved from a place of despair and isolation to one of energy and enlightenment. Sidi immediately called a meeting of the elders who unanimously agreed and allocated tasks to every elephant. The mood in the camp changed immediately, the herd was motivated, focused and excited about planning the heroes welcome home.
More than two weeks had passed before Bandoola and Batyr smelled what they thought was water. As they walked on they saw what looked like an illusion. Buffalo, crocodiles, wildebeest, flamingos, hippopotamus and lions all drinking from a large lake in what appeared to be an oasis surrounded by an abundance of foliage. As they moved closer, Renee the eagle swooped down to tell them the good news and Mona the cheetah came rushing back soaking wet – it was real! They had overcome insurmountable odds and worked together as a team to achieve their goal. Raja the giraffe could not believe it and followed Mona to the lake ahead of Bandoola and Batyr.
The calves immersed themselves in the water splashing each other unable to contain their excitement. They had to take action fast as the herd must be struggling with limited supplies of food and water. Bandoola instructed Renee to fly to the other elephants in the search party and tell them the news. They were then to fly back to the herd and give them directions on how to get there. Teaming up with Renee had been a stroke of genius as, not only acting as their eyes in the sky, he would now save precious time by flying back to the herd.
When Renee arrived back at the herd, although they were desperately short of water, he could see their spirits were high. The news of the water and the safety of the search team was magic to their large ears and they immediately made arrangements to set out towards the lake. Sidi was proud of his leadership skills, he had kept the herd focused, motivated and in high spirits in the most challenging circumstances ever and all because Lalla asked him some powerful questions and allowed him the space to think.
They arrived at the lake to find Bandoola, Batyr and the rest of the search team in the water with the other animals. Lalla was overcome with emotion and so happy to see all the calves playing in the water. Sidi admired them all and knew it was with Lalla’s support he had been able to make the right decision and save the herd.
That evening, the welcome home party for the calves was inspiring. Bandoola and the others told stories of their adventures and explained how an incisive question from Batyr helped shift Bandoola’s thought process. ‘What ideas would you have if you only had two days to survive?’ Lalla loved that question and committed it to memory. The answer to this question led them to team up with Renee, Raja, Mona and the other animals without whom the success of their search would have failed. The whole herd listened in silence while Lalla was glowing in admiration for the youngsters. They had learned to think for themselves, to ask incisive questions and to allow others the time and space to think.
Sidi announced the awards ceremony and presented medals to each member of the young team on their courage, fortitude, creativity and persistence. More than anything, he praised the incredible teamwork between elephants, eagles, giraffes and cheetahs that enabled them to achieve their goal and save the herd. Additional medals had quickly been made from branches and leaves for Renee, Raja and all the animals that were part of the team. It was a momentous occasion and one that would go down in elephant folklore. Sidi and Lalla both believed the learnings from the challenge would prove inspiring for generations to come.
Back to Reality
The story of Sidi, Lalla, Bandoola, Batyr and the other elephants is probably one that resonates in boardrooms and teams whenever different ways of thinking need to be explored to find solutions to complex problems working with a cast of many different characters.
Who in your organization would represent Sidi, a proud leader who opened up to new ways of thinking and found his own hidden treasures enabling him to motivate and energise others into action? What about Lalla, wise, reflective and skilled at asking incisive questions then being comfortable with silence until the magic appears? How about Bandoola, the young explorer not afraid of new adventures and Batyr, the creative one always throwing out some crazy ideas some of which have a significant impact? What about Kandula, the most forthright, always vying for attention and happy to challenge others while not always open to feedback and Kasavan, afraid of conflict and tending to take the path of least resistance?
Whatever the make up of your team, the skill of powerful questions, challenging assumptions and giving others the time and space to think will make a profound difference to the ideas and decisions that you all make. An enlightened world awaits those who can think for themselves and allows others the privilege of doing so too.
Time to Think by Nancy Kline
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