On August 12, we celebrated world elephant day.  With Jane Goodall calling for a ban on ivory sales in Canada and many others tweeting about the dwindling numbers of Asian and African elephants (down from 1.3million 30 years ago to just over 400 000), I am hoping that this awareness will bring the world a little closer to nature and spark at least some conversations about why we need to support the preservation of nature’s giant pachyderms.

Elephants can teach us to be better humans

Those who have been in close proximity to these funny schnozzled beasts will know that there is something mystical and special about them.  They are (mostly) gentle, intelligent family-orientated creatures.  An elephant is smart – their brains are huge, somewhere around 5 kgs, they are able to use tools, they are self-aware and show empathy.   Which is, let’s face it, more than we can say for many leaders, even some in super powerful positions.

1. They use their knowledge to help the team;

I am not sure if the age-old adage that an elephant NEVER forgets holds true, although older elephants will lead their families to water during times of drought, remembering hidden water sources that their ancestors used during previous dry cycles. In turn, younger elephants look after their elders really well, to the extent where they will chew their food for them, once gramps have lost the last set of molars!

2. They are responsible citizens;

They are what are called key stone species. They dig water holes where other animals can drink during dry times, they even excavate caves where bats and other cave-loving species live. Their dung provides food for beetles and even monkeys. They are vegan! They will often trumpet alarm when threats are near, warning other animals.

3. They play to the strength of their team;

Elephants pay special heed to the older members of their team, looking after them physically and capitalising on their strengths such as their institutional knowledge.  The matriarch is a strong older female who will lead the group until she no longer feels strong enough, when her daughter will take over the position.  Young ones are nurtured and protected, for example calves are always walking in formation in the middle of the group. Males, when ready to leave their mothers, will seek out the company of the older and more experienced males, who in turn socialise in male-only groups and will guide and control the young ones’ behaviour.

4. They respect male and female leaders;

Elephant families spend their lives in tightly knit family groups of females with their offspring, being led by one dominant female, called the matriarch. These groups often form nursing units, looking after each other’s young, showering newborns with love and physical cuddling and attention and even support their young female friends when a big bull shows affection…The older males form social groups of their own, forming close friendships and usually led by a dominant male, until it is time to mate, when they will often integrate into the family groups and protect the pregnant females.

5. They are excellent communicators;

Elephants have clear and varied communication signals for all important aspects of elephant life. Trumpeting, rumbling, squealing, bellowing…They can make infrasonic sounds that will carry 10 kilometres far. They are also known to communicate with seismic vibrations produced by impacts on the earth’s surface or acoustical waves that travel through it. In their groups, they often communicate via touch and will greet each other by wrapping their trunks.

We need to nurture and train our youth as they will be the leaders of tomorrow, whether we train and nurture them or not.  There is a crucial role for older leaders in organisations; institutional memory, mentoring and coaching abilities are often lost to business with over-50-year-old managers being pushed out to make space for young, hungry, aggressive leadership.  There is a strong case, for which I will hold a torch, that this could be one reason for the lack of authentic leadership today.  Let’s reflect and remember why being old is not necessarily being obsolete.  Even if it is only to remind the youth of the mistakes of the past. Let’s remember why we should preserve ancient wisdom while we stagger in the aftermath of the materialistic, gluttonous late 1900’s into, what we hope, will be a more sustainable and responsible future.

Written by Leonie Pentz, Managing Partner AIMS International South Africa