The Virtue Of Elephant Leadership And Why It Matters

The Virtue Of Elephant Leadership And Why It Matters

Since the days of the ancient Greek historian Pliny, humans have been fascinated by the mighty elephant.  Pliny once wrote that the elephant was second only to man in its intelligence.  In the centuries since, there’s been plenty of evidence to support the claim.

Yes, elephants are undeniably strong.  But their size and sheer strength does not really explain their durability. They’ve been able to thrive in some of the harshest, most inhospitable climates imaginable and to keep predators at bay from their massive, slow moving bodies.

How? By means of a system of leadership and community they have perfected over the course of millions of years.

Humans can learn much from elephants and from what makes them such a success.

At the heart of every herd is a leader.  Always a female, a Matriarch.  This sets elephants apart from most other species, which are typically dominated by an Alpha-Male at the head of troops, packs or herds in the wild.

The Alpha-Male gains and maintains his position by virtue of superior strength.  As such, his rule is subject to challenge at any time by another male.  Predictably, the results aren’t pretty, usually ending in one or both of the strongest members of the groups wounded or killed.

Elephants have another process.  Their Matriarchs are chosen.  They do not elevate themselves.  Rather, the herd selects their leader from among the wisest and most popular of their members.

Scientists have studied herd matriarchs in particular to see what traits they have in common and have identified several things of note.  Without fail, the chosen Matriarch displays the following key characteristics.  She is:

  • Cooperative
  • Respectful
  • Communicative
  • Consistent

There’s more.

She learns not only from her own mistakes, but from the mistakes of others.  When she does, she sees that the lessons from those mistakes are shared with the other members of her herd.

In one fascinating example, an elephant from another herd ran into an electrified fence and was injured.  The Matriarch saw this and instructed her followers about the new danger.  The herd never went near the fence.

These traits are found even in the youngest members of the herd.  In another field study, a baby elephant was born with a problem with its forelegs.  His muscles weren’t strong enough to allow him to stand properly.  He wound up walking on his knees for the first few months of his life, putting the entire herd at risk because it slowed them down greatly.

Most species of animals would kill or abandon this weakling.  But, the Matriarch of the herd worked tirelessly with the youngling.  Gradually, over time, she conditioned him to the point that he could stand on his own.

Many field researches provide countless similar examples of Matriarchs changing and adapting to fluid situations.  Elephants even pay their respects to the dead! Researchers have actually caught this ceremony on film.  If the herd comes across a fallen elephant, they will form a circle around it and touch it tenderly with their trunks, as if saying goodbye.  If they come across the bones of an elephant, the Matriarch will bury them with her trunk and feet.

It is this consistency and respect in the elephant community that elevates them above every other animal species in the wild.  It is these types of fascinating details that make them such a joy to study.

Now then, what exactly, can we draw from all of this?

Interestingly, if you look at the key and defining traits of the Matriarch, there are a mirror image of the traits listed as most important in today’s business and managerial environment.

In other words, in the elephant community, it’s not JUST about the bottom line.  Yes, that matters.  Yes, that’s important.  But elephant society has evolved over the course of millions of years in a way that breeds success by way of cooperation, by way ofmutual respect, by way of communication and by way of consistency in behavior.

“The quality of a leader is reflected in the standards they set for themselves.”                  –Ray Kroc

Note: Ten of thousands of elephants are killed each year by criminals for their ivory.  Save the elephants by learning more about how you can help. Check out sites such as and and join the fight to save the elephants.

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