“Motivate the elephant” to influence change

Photo/Dennis Sparks

“Once you break through to feeling . . . things change.” —Chip Heath & Dan Heath

Chip Heath and Dan Heath explain the change process this way in Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard: “For individual behavior to change, you’ve got to influence not only their environment but their hearts and minds.” To explain their ideas they offer the metaphor of an elephant with a rider, with the intellect represented by the rider and emotions by the elephant. The rider plans and directs; the elephant provides the energy. The extend the metaphor by including “the path,” the situation or environment in which the rider and elephant find themselves. Leaders’ work, then, is to guide the change effort through clarity of purpose and direction, motivate the elephant by engaging people’s emotions, and “shape the path” to enable the desired performance. My previous essay described ways to affect “the rider.” The next essay will consider “the path.”

Leaders engage the energy of the elephant through the cultivation of positive emotions. “Negative emotions tend to have a ‘narrowing effect’ on our thoughts . . .,” the Heaths note. “[I]n contrast with the narrowing effects of the negative emotions, positive emotions are designed to ‘broaden and built’ our repertoire of thoughts and actions.” Hope is cultivated, they say, through small, incremental wins that are meaningful and that individuals perceive as within reach. Likewise, unclear actions that offer little guidance are unlikely to produce the small wins that motivate the elephant.

The Heaths also advocate that leaders adopt and promote a “growth mindset” that views abilities as muscles that can be developed rather than a “fixed mindset” that sees abilities as static. The growth mindset has learning as its core process and acknowledges the possibility of failure. It says, according to the Heaths, “We will struggle, we will fail, we will be knocked down—but throughout, we’ll get better, and we’ll succeed in the end.” On the other hand, a fixed mindset discourages the pursuit of stretching goals because of the risk taking they entail.

Ways school leaders might motivate the elephant:

Cultivate positive emotions: Understand the role that your emotions play in the emotional life of the school community and cultivate your positive emotions using tools suggested in an earlier essay.

Adopt a growth mindset: View human capacities as malleable rather than as fixed. As a first step, read this article on the influence of mindsets and reflect on whether your words and deeds match your intention of learning and growth for all students.

Take a moment now to . . .

• select one of the methods above and apply it to “the elephant” in an improvement in you own leadership practice or to a significant change effort in the school community.

3 Responses to ““Motivate the elephant” to influence change”


  1. 1 Jason Glass May 12, 2010 at 8:58 am

    Great post Dennis! Ross Danis came to visit us with Jim Guthrie last week at ECS and discussed “the Rider and the Elephant.” Check out is takeaways at http://www.rossdanis.com. We seem to have a convergence happening here!

  2. 2 salmah May 23, 2012 at 6:35 am

    Great post Dennis, l had a wonderful time reading your article.may your post more your opinion in changing of mindsets.


  1. 1 “Shape the path” to influence change « Leading for Results—Dennis Sparks' Blog Trackback on May 14, 2010 at 4:01 am

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