Riding the Elephant
A Guide for Leading a Non-profit
“An emotionally intelligent rider knows how to distract and coax the elephant without having to engage in a contest of wills.”
Since leaving the position of Board Chair for the Stonewall Library & Archives I have been deluged with many local and national non-profit leaders and paid staff asking me for advice. Through blessed volunteers, a stellar new executive director and development manager, luck, and some very hard work, during my administration The Stonewall became a national GLBT treasure with innovative national touring exhibitions in a new home in a publicly supported space. During some of the most trying economic times we raised through public and private donations an unheard of $700,000.00 in less than two years while maintaining a program of over 20 programs a month, organizing touring exhibitions, and sponsoring a national festival of GLBT writers.
OK, now my arm is sore from patting myself on the back. The truth is a Board Chair’s accomplishments are dependent on his volunteer board, the paid staff, the planetary alignment of governmental support, and his or hers willingness to what I call “Ride the Elephant.”
Human thinking depends on metaphors. We understand new or complex things in relation to our understanding of something we already know.
This metaphor of riding an elephant came to me a year or so after I left my term limited tenure at The Stonewall. I had already had lunch, dinner, walks, late night conversations with no less than eight different executive directors, presidents of boards, and disgruntled donors of various non profits both straight and gay. I looked back at my experiences and while watching TV one night, I saw a man riding an elephant and suddenly the parallels popped out.
If you try and ride an elephant you quickly learn that you can’t make it do what it doesn’t want to do. The rider can pull the reigns, scream, prod the lovely beast, but ultimately you will end up with a disgruntled animal and a worn out rider. The first thing the rider of the elephant must know is 1) He or she can see things from a little bit higher perspective than the elephant 2) He or she can talk to other elephant riders 3) He or she can read maps. That about sums up the skills of a Board Chair of non profits. If you try to make the elephant do something it does not want to do…YOU WILL ALWAYS LOSE.
In riding the elephant you and the elephant both learn to adapt. An elephant can achieve more tasks and move more cargo with a good rider who helps the elephant make better choices. Gently coaxing the elephant in your desired direction with immediate and relevant positive reinforcement will benefit both rider and elephant. An emotionally intelligent rider knows how to distract and coax the elephant without having to engage in a contest of wills.
The rider cannot decide to change and then order the elephant to go along with the program. Remember that if you go head to head with the elephant you will always lose. Lasting change comes from advising, listening, observing the jungle before starting out on the journey.
In the end, both you and the elephant will be better for the relationship.
Have a peaceful week