Riding the Elephant

I don’t really understand myself, for I want to do what is right, but I don’t do it. Instead, I do what I hate. – Apostle Paul

Let’s talk about the elephant in the room. There may be an 800-pound gorilla on the coffee table too, but one metaphoric animal at a time will do.

My elephant is a sugar fiend. He would spend all day in the sugar cane fields and eat every stalk if my rider let him. My rider knows the evils of sugar and one day he will write more about when he gets that elephant out of the sugar crop once and for all. What’s your elephant into? Did you know you have one?

The elephant and rider metaphor was first put forth by social psychologist and Professor of Ethical Leadership at New York University’s Stern School of Business, Jonathan David Haidt (pronounced “height”). I just downloaded Jonathan Haidt’s book – The Happiness Hypothesis on the Kindle. Reading Chip and Dan Heath’s book Switch: Ho to Change When Change is Hard, was my first exposure to the metaphor.

The model depicts our two sides as humans – our analytical/controlled/rational side (its rider) and our emotional/automatic/irrational side (the elephant). According to the model, the rider is rational and can plan ahead, while the elephant is irrational and driven by emotion and instinct. We have to find the balance between the two. Can you relate to the conflict?

The Heath brothers argue that all changes follow a pattern and introduce a third element to the model – a directional/situational/environment component (the path the elephant is following)

Their evidenced backed narrative on change says,

  1. Direct the Rider
    a. Find the Bright Spots
    b. Script the Critical Moves
    c. Point to the Destination
  2. 2. Motivate the Elephant
    a. Find the Feeling
    b. Shrink the Change
    c. Grow Your People
  3. 3. Shape the Path
    a. Tweak the Environment
    b. Build Habits
    c. Rally the Herd

“Perched atop the Elephant, the Rider holds the reins and seems to be the leader. But the Rider’s control is precarious because the Rider is so small relative to the Elephant. Anytime the six-ton Elephant and the Rider disagree about which direction to go, the Rider is going to lose. He’s completely overmatched.” You need to create a path that makes it easier to be successful.”
“Most of us are all too familiar with situations in which our Elephant overpowers our Rider. You’ve experienced this if you’ve ever slept in, overeaten, dialed up your ex at midnight, procrastinated, tried to quit smoking and failed, skipped the gym, gotten angry and said something you regretted, abandoned your Spanish or piano lessons, refused to speak up in a meeting because you were scared, and so on.”

The key to effective change is getting the Elephant and the Rider moving together. Dan and Chip write:

“Changes often fail because the Rider simply can’t keep the Elephant on the road long enough to reach the destination. The Elephant’s hunger for instant gratification is the opposite of the Rider’s strength, which is the ability to think long-term, to plan, to think beyond the moment (all those things that your pet can’t do.) … To make progress toward a goal, whether it’s noble or crass, requires the energy and drive of the Elephant. And this strength is the mirror image of the Rider’s great weakness: spinning his wheels. The Rider tends to overanalyze and over think things. … A reluctant Elephant and a wheel-spinning Rider can both ensure nothing changes. But when Elephants and Riders move together, change can come easily.”

They then introduce 3 surprises which can be helpful in framing messages:


  1. What looks like resistance is often lack of clarity. Don’t say eat healthier. Say eat more dark leafy greens.
  2. What looks like laziness is often exhaustion. Change is hard…acknowledge it.
  3. What looks like a people problem is often a situational problem. Make sure to think about their environment and support system.

I love this metaphor because it is one with which I immediately connected. I think one trick is not to allow the elephant to become our excuse for lack of growth and change. It has also helped me to know that one of the elephant’s key tactics is his sense of entitlement. Let’s talk about that one tomorrow.

Today – Go celebrate your bright spots.


Rick Burris



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