Thursday, October 20, 2011

Wanted: Elephant Killers

For the unindoctrinated and according to my favorite reference Wikipedia, "Elephant in the room" is an English metaphorical idiom for an obvious truth that is being ignored or goes unaddressed. The idiomatic expression also applies to an obvious problem or risk no one wants to discuss. It is based on the idea that an elephant in a room would be impossible to overlook; thus, people in the room who pretend the elephant is not there have chosen to avoid dealing with the looming big issue.

I've been to my share of meetings and I have enjoyed many conversations. Working repeatedly in team settings has allowed me to gauge the level of shared commitment to what we profess to be a common objective upon the size and number of elephants in the room. One of the many things I enjoy about the current team with whom I serve is the growing number of Shipmates who take pride in their roles as Elephant Killers.

I have found that the best way to rid ourselves of elephants and ensure we are properly focused is by acknowledging the elephants that we see. Saying what we mean and explaining why we do the things we do, or feel the way we feel, is empowering and speaks to our commitment to progress. In fact, it's contagious. A culture of such honesty is difficult to build and I would be fooling myself if I said that I was ever on a team where the majority conducted themselves as elephant killers. That said, I have always respected those who are willing to say what others won't and make it a point to tell others what they need to hear vice what they want to hear. I am not advocating bullying, but I do repeatedly ask myself why so many refuse to acknowledge the obvious. Truth is I understand why, but I refuse to accept it.

I've had my ego bruised many times and on occasion my feelings hurt, but in the long run, I am better because others chose to kill the elephant. I have tremendous respect for them because I am a big proponent of continual improvement and have been known to share my unsolicited opinions with those willing, or with no choice but, to listen. I also make it a point to explain what shaped those opinions. Some appreciate such honesty, some don't, but if I didn't conduct myself in this manner, I wouldn't sleep at night.

I recently had a conversation with a senior officer who spoke my language. He went out of his way to break some news to me (not what I wanted to hear), explain why he felt the way he did, and share thoughts on what he'd like me to do about it. He didn't want me to get the news from anyone other than himself. In essence, he wanted to preemptively address the potential for birthing an elephant, he wanted to ensure our ongoing dialogue remained authentic, and he wanted to re-enforce the fact he expected the same from me. Refreshing!

Being an elephant killer comes with risk (not everyone enjoys such honesty), but the risk elephant protectors create for a team far outweigh any perceived benefits resulting from silence. I want to be on a team that helps each other by pointing out the elephants, cooperatively killing them and then thanking each other for caring enough to do so. I want to be on a team of Elephant Killers.

As for the 800 pound gorilla, that's another story all together.

Note: No elephants have actually been harmed in our continued quest to speak the truth.

1 comment:

  1. I agree wholeheartedly with this premise. I must admit that have been wounded by friendly fire a few of the times I have attempted to kill the elephant. Nevertheless, I have learned that one can avoid fratricide by framing the argument carefully. I have gotten better over time, but still get the surprised looks at times because I dare to speak out against the elephant.
    I think speaking out for what you think is right, and or pointing out the elephant is worth the potential flack one might get back. Some prefer to stay in the safe zone by staying quiet. They just assume to stay silent so as to risk nothing. That is not leadership. I am happy to see others of similar philosophies/styles.