Leadership is acknowledging the elephant in the room.

‘Put the elephant on the table,’ was the motto of the successful team of Philippe Gilbert, the no. 1 in the world in cycling of 2011[i]. Wouter Torfs says the same thing about the success of his company: “We have an open culture of direct feedback. We dare to say the good and the bad things to each other.” The elephant in the room is the thing we don’t like to talk about. It’s the real change needed, the hard choice we don’t want to make.

Everybody feels the elephant in the room, but we don’t look at it. And as long as we ignore it, the elephant keeps on growing and crushing people. Leadership looks around and defines the elephant in the room. It sees what happens in the context and frames what’s need to be done. Dirk Beeuwsaert coined it as the essence of leadership: “The most fundamental task for the leader is to set the challenge.” It’s the ‘Intellectual stimulation’ dimension of transformational leadership.

Seeing what needs to be done supposes systemic thinking and seeing oneself as part of the system. “We fail because we fail to see the right problem.”[ii] It’s the core idea of Ronald Heifetz’ theory on adaptive leadership11. Leadership brings disequilibrium and “finding a way to disappoint people without pushing them completely over the edge.”[iii] Tackling the ‘elephant in the room’ is a personal choice. Nobobdy asks it. As Martin Luther spoke: “Here I stand, I can do no other.” Leadership is at the same time ‘being called’ and ‘choose to act on the calling.’


[i] Interview with Marc Sergeant, team leader of Philippe Gilbert in DS Weekblad 24-25th September.
[ii] GHARAJEDAGHI, J. (1999). Systems Thinking. Managing chaos and complexity. A platform for designing business architecture. Boston: Butterworth, Heinemann, p. 128.
[iii] HEIFETZ, R., GRASHOW, A. & LINSKY, M. (2009). The practice of adaptive leadership. Boston: Harvard Business School Press, p. 26.

About Koen Marichal

Director Future Leadership Initiative at Antwerp Management School
This entry was posted in 19 leadership thoughts, 6. Responsibility & change, Academic insights & evidence, English and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Leadership is acknowledging the elephant in the room.

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