Leadership Lessons from a Fictional Elephant

I am the mother of a book-loving almost two-year-old, so I spend much of my downtime steeped in children’s literature. I’m not sure if you’ve ever had the opportunity to have a chubby baby-scented little person sit on your lap to read with you, but if not, I highly recommend it.

That is how I came across the dramatic tale of Mr. Wrinkles. The oldest elephant in Africa, Mr. Wrinkles knows every animal. He remembers each of their names, because, as the book reminds us, “an elephant never forgets.” But this sweetie of a mammal has the misfortune of falling into a hole one day, in between visits to a herd of giraffes and a cheetah.

The first thing we learn about fictional anthropomorphized elephants? They do not panic during adversity. Instead, Mr. Wrinkles’ first move is to begin brainstorming and networking. He calls a family of meerkats to spread the news of his challenging situation to everyone they can find. Before long, a few giraffes show up, hoping to bring down some branches he can use to pull himself up. He moves, but only a little.

Next, a flock of tropical birds appear. They each grab hold and flap their wings, lifting him a little more. But it’s still not enough.

Last, a wildebeest appears. As the others flap and pull, and the meerkats cheer them on, he gives his friend a firm headbutt to the tush and pops him out of the hole.

Here’s what I love about this book: First, Mr. Wrinkles uses his existing network to champion his cause. He’s not networking in crisis. He has trusted community members at the ready, because he’s already done the work of relationship building. Another key leadership skill? Mr. Wrinkles never turns down help. Every person who shows up gets put to work in a role appropriate for their size, shape, and ability. Their contributions are valued even when they aren’t the whole picture. Every member of the team plays a dynamic role, appropriate to their abilities and buy-in.

Lastly, this team is rapid moving, because its an existing network lead by a trusted figure. Rather than spending time worrying about Gantt charts or Tuckman’s phases of team growth, Mr. Wrinkles is able to navigate his escape from the whole on relationships and communication alone.

So here’s an invitation to you, changemaker. Don’t go it alone. Build relationships. Learn skill sets. Gain a reasonable sense of your community’s abilities and expectations. And then communicate really well. That’s how work gets done.

In the wise words of the oldest elephant in all of Africa: “Even though you are all different, you are all very special indeed."