Don't shoot the elephant...

By Venkatesh Krishnamurthy

Recently I came across this fascinating story by Orwell about shooting an elephant. 

Orwell, who was an English officer in Burma during 1920's,  was tasked to find the killer elephant. As he continues searching, finally finds the elephant in a field calmly eating it's food.  However, the crowd around Orwell starts jeering him to shoot the elephant and even more after seeing his gun. 

As Orwell describes in his story, 

Despite Orwell’s aversion to shooting the elephant, he becomes suddenly aware that he will lose face and be humiliated if he does not shoot it. He, therefore, shoots the elephant.  

You might be wondering, why I am sharing this story here... but wait I believe there is a huge meaning and a management lesson to be learnt from this story.  

In the above story, even though Orwell wasn't interested in shooting and killing an elephant, he was under social pressure. Orwell being in an authoritative position wanted to satisfy the crowd's hunger to look good and at the same time, he didn't want to look weak in front of them. Do you see what I see?

I see this behavioral pattern in everyday life at work and  in other social situation as well.

For example, consider the setting where one of your leaders is chairing a meeting with team members. One of the naughty team member asks a sensitive question about the unnecessary money being spent in furnishing the office when the company is struggling with cash flow. 

What happens now?  The room goes silent, and everyone would be looking at the leader to see the response. Now the ball is in leader's court, and obviously the leader has to defend. In the mean time, if the leader has a command/control leadership style, he/she cannot remain silent and show as weak. This leader now wants to demonstrate the strength in front of the team. That’s when all the insecure leaders shoot the elephant.

Many leaders shoot the elephant as a warning to others and sometimes just to satisfy their ego.

To conclude, I would say that we all come across social situations where we are expected to act in a certain way. The people around us whether our spouse and family, peers or team members wait to see our response. It is important to be mindful of the situation in a social setting without getting into social pressure.

In the Orwell's story, the "Mahoot" or the elephant trainer could have been called to take the elephant back to the forest rather than unnecessarily killing the elephant to satisfy crowd's expectation. 

Have you come across situations where your leaders have shot the elephant ?