JKWhitehead & Associates

Leadership Defined as an Elephant

Leadership Defined as an Elephant

Drawing of an elephant leadershipLeadership can be described in many different ways. Just google “Define Leadership” and see how many results you get. For the course I’ve been teaching at UBCO, “Leadership in Complex Environments”, I asked the students (fourth-year Faculty of Management) to devise their own definition of leadership. In fact, throughout the term, they have navigated through a number of experiences and exercises designed to help them do just that.

In the final class of the term I asked students to present an abstract of their final paper, which was to include their definition. The experience was inspiring. One by one they came to the front of the class and expressed their view based not only on their personal experiences, but also on what they had learned from the class. There were some basic similarities but their examples were as varied as the people involved.

The most interesting presentation used a novel approach to illustrate her definition of leadership. The student (I will call her Ann), first stated that although she wasn’t very good at drawing she wanted to draw a picture of an elephant. She started by drawing an elephant’s head with its big ears and trunk. She then turned to the class, saying, “See, I told you I’m not very good at this,” and then asked another student to come up and help. That student stepped forward and drew the top of the elephant’s head, two tusks and a body. Ann thanked that student and then asked if there was someone else who could help, so yet another student stepped forward and drew legs and a tail. Ann thanked her but wasn’t finished yet. She turned to the class again and asked if there was one more person willing to come and help. That fourth student came up and looked at the drawing but said, “It looks like it’s done.” Ann replied that she wanted it to look fun, so the new assistant drew a hat on the elephant’s head. By this time everyone was laughing, recognizing what Ann had demonstrated. Leadership for her was collaboration and engagement. She had demonstrated to us in an excellent and very tangible way her definition of leadership.

There were many worthwhile presentations by all those who participated. It was gratifying to see from this exercise how much the students had grown in their knowledge and experience of leadership. It was a learning experience for me, too, to hear and reflect on all these new definitions.


John Whitehead, coaches individuals and organizations in becoming more effective by helping them improve their interpersonal communications, emotional intelligence and resiliency.

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