Elephant vs Cattle Prod: the A-Ha All Over Again

At the end of August, it was my great pleasure to speak in Johannesburg, South Africa, giving two fun keynotes over three days. Finding myself on the other side of the world, I took the remainder of the week to explore this magical place. I saw it as a chance to clear my mind, work on large concepts, and plan for the rest of year. Sometimes stepping out of our ordinary routines helps us get the big picture and see things more clearly. I didn’t realize just how big that picture was going to be, until Elephant vs Cattle.

My first exploration was a traditional day-long safari that let me glimpse all the wild animals, and even a charging male elephant. Then I toured Soweto’s Apartheid Museum and learned more about the country’s recent difficult past, and how a few strong leaders endured to ensure freedom, liberty, and respect for all citizens. It is a truly remarkable story. Nelson Mandela was a great inspiration to so many while he was alive, and his legacy continues to inspire.

After that, I decided to spend my final two days at a game reserve. There, I was given a rare opportunity to spend time with two large, male African elephants. I hesitated, concerned about the parameters of this experience. But the facility staff convinced me that this was not a gross tourist thing, detrimental to the elephants, or in any other way a negative. They don’t do elephant washing or other gimmicky activities aimed at the selfie crowds (even though I did get my selfie!). They do, however, allow guests—when it works out—to hang out with the elephants while they are being fed, as a way to reinforce that humans are good. So, I said okay.

Before I could meet these two giants of the animal kingdom, I had to go to class. Now I knew I was in the right place! The handlers each spend 45 days straight with their charges and know them well. They took me through elephant boot camp.

In a way, this was a natural extension of my time at the museum, where I took in much more than I thought possible on a topic I thought I knew a bit about. To say that elephant boot camp opened my eyes would be an understatement. I learned how rare it was that these particular animals and humans would ever share the same space.

In contrast to their Asian cousins, African elephants were once deemed untrainable, unpredictable, and downright dangerous. The Asian elephant can be whipped, cattle-prodded, and forced into submission—sort of like the old-school method of “breaking” horses to domesticate them. But not the African elephant. The use of force proves only to enrage the animals, causing their resistance to escalate and making them far more dangerous.

This reminded me of the most difficult personalities we encounter in our working lives. From bad bosses to terrible employees, trying to force new behaviors and attempting to break people’s spirits doesn’t work. They usually fight back harder!

So, how in the world were humans able to coax wild elephants to interact safely with humans—not once, but over and over again? In other words, what management techniques were successful in working with these extremely stubborn and potentially deadly animals? It turns out that positivity plays a huge role here.

It helped me to understand the staff’s training goals, first. The biggest concern was safety. Elephants form strong emotional bonds with their family members and tend to live happily in their herds, but most of the elephants on the reserve are not related. South Africa practices “herd management,” where they kill a certain number of elephants in across a region to control the population, in a practice known as culling. Ten years ago, 13 bulls out of 60 designated for culling were saved and brought to the reserve. Each was allotted the 2,000 hectares of space needed for their natural territory, yet each had to interact with humans in order to get health maintenance and medical attention. The reserve could only function properly if the elephants acted peacefully. The staff had the challenge of helping the elephants adapt, which was a major issue, considering the distress they had gone through.

In order to accustom these wild bull elephants to new surroundings and to humans, a new approach was developed: continual positive interaction, not force. Every positive action by the elephants was rewarded with love, good-tasting food, and thanks. Elephants that had been charging their handlers and trying to kill them quickly began to relax and accept their rewards. In this manner, they eventually learned more than 60 commands—or should we call them “suggestions”?

Today, these elephants spend 99.9% of their time wandering across the reserve and living their lives in peace. The facility has purchased more land, and directors hope to save a female soon. Occasionally, a guest like me comes to visit and experience the miracle of coexisting with these magnificent creatures. We get to walk with them, help feed them, and be a part of their days. Through positive reinforcement, an understanding was reached, and now humans and elephants can operate together in a beneficial way, without force, danger, or regret.

Spending time on this game reserve was a great reminder that positive leadership yields better outcomes. When you encounter those prickly personalities in the workplace, forget about trying to break them of their habits by telling them what’s wrong. Instead, ask what motivates them. Think of ways to give them the equivalent of a really yummy treat. If the largest animal in Africa can be guided in a positive manner, so can that difficult person in your life.