What I learned from my Father…Spotting Elephants and Naked Emperors

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June 8, 2010
After a long and very successful career, my father has decided to finally retire. It will now become his full time responsibility to stay home and drive my mom crazy instead of accumulating frequent flier miles in a style not unlike that illustrated in the movie "Up in the Air".  A momentous occasion such as this, of course, requires some reflection.

The older I get the more I realize that many of my work habits and much of my work style came from observing my father.  This could be good or it could be bad, depending on who you ask. In the end, it has worked out pretty well for me and I know it worked out well for my dad.  Those who worked with my father trusted and respected him.  They knew there were no surprises and he communicated with honesty and tact.  When he told me he was going to retire, my first question was "is this for real this time?".  When he told me this was for real, the next question I asked him was "To whom will you be delegating the Elephant spotting role?"

You know what I am talking about if you are an elephant spotter yourself (and if you are, I congratulate you).  These are the people who everyone wants in a meeting except the person who is trying to hide the elephant.  These people are best personified as the little boy who points out that the Emperor is naked in the classic tale "The Emperor’s New Clothes" artfully written by Hans Christian Andersen.  Most seasoned professionals have, at one time in their career, witnessed a scene in their office, business or organization that might have gone something like this excerpt from the book:

"A child, however, who had no important job and could only see things as his eyes showed them to him, went up to the carriage. 

"The Emperor is naked," he said….

"The boy is right! The Emperor is naked! It’s true!"

The Emperor realized that the people were right but could not admit to that. He thought it better to continue the procession under the illusion that anyone who couldn’t see his clothes was either stupid or incompetent. And he stood stiffly on his carriage, while behind him a page held his imaginary mantle."


This story is an early illustration of the "elephant spotter", and we all know them.  This is what my father did well and most of the time with finesse and tact.  This is the most valuable skill I learned from my dad and while at times it has placed me in the "not so good graces" of the one trying to hide said elephant, it has always made someone in the room grateful I am there.  Growing up in my family, it also made it difficult to hide elephants in the house.

I recently read a post by Fistful of Talent titled "Whatever Happened to Good Ol Competition?" that struck a chord with me.  In this post, Andy Porter, (VP of HR/OD with Merrimack Pharmaceutical) talks about how collaboration is not always the best way to run a business effectively.  My dad was effective because he had ideas and he shared those ideas with others even when they were not always conventional.  One of the tips Andy provides is this:

Toughen your team up.  Encourage heated discussion and debate around new and unconventional ideas – don’t rush to a consensus resolution.  This might feel uncomfortable at times but will improve individual and team performance over time.

I would add that as a leader, you should provide all of your staff members with proper "elephant spotting" training and outfit them appropriately to go into battle with confidence and emerge victorious.  Your business will profit from the investment in employee development and engagement.  I am sure my mom will be happy to provide my dad for consulting services (even for free) to redirect him from pointing out all the elephants at home.