What is an Elephant?

Richard Smythe

The Blind Men and the Elephant

There’s a great story that has stuck with me since I was a little kid about the six blind mice (it’s actually told with six blind men, but I like telling it with mice better) and their exploration of an elephant. If you are unfamiliar with the poem by John Godfrey Saxe, the short version of the story is that each mouse explores a different part of the elephant and mistakes the part explored as the whole. One mouse believes the elephant is like a spear after exploring the tusk, one a fan (ear), and another a rope (tail).

Though each was partly in the right, they all were in the wrong!

Alan Watts articulated a similar sentiment with the example of watching an animal walk behind a rock and then, all of a sudden, forgetting that the tail and head are connected to one another!

Richard Smythe

This way of thinking is common in many aspects of our lives. For example, in education, we moved from 1st to 2nd period and learned about each subject as if they are unrelated. What might be necessary is an “integration” period in which we learn how each subject is related to every other.

Our medical system operates in a similarly disjointed way; psychologists, dentists, and gastroenterologists work independently of one another which prevents them from seeing that our anxiety is not only manifesting itself in our relationships and work habits, but also in our teeth grinding and digestive reflux.

Unfortunately, this same pattern plays out in the way we view ourselves. Founders, funders, and all of us involved in startup culture may don a myopic focus that causes us to forget that our powerful brain is attached to a body, emotions, and relationships. Or maybe worse, that our success as humans is not synonymous with the success of our companies.


It takes a team

Being a blind mouse exploring an elephant comes with the risk of believing what you sense is the whole truth. Each of us has unique experiences and expertise that allows us to produce information that is vital to the whole picture. To avoid mistaking the elephant for the tail, you must work with a communicative team. This requires a megaphone system so the blind mouse exploring the ear can shout back to the mouse exploring the tail, “I’ve found something!”

Like Alan Watts said, we can easily appreciate the tail and the head of the animal divided by a rock without recognizing their connection to one another. So, when the ear-exploring mouse yells back, “I’ve found something!” the mouse by the tail needs to reply, “Me too! I wonder what’s between us?” Integrated teams must treat each part with care and expertise but also hold an awareness that the whole is greater than the sum of it’s parts.

The Atlas Promise

Consider the support a tree needs to grow tall and strong. The sun is an expert at providing light, rain is the best tool for hydration, and dirt is the most robust source of nutrients. If the sun tries to water a tree, the whole thing would shrivel up, and if the rain tries to provide light, the tree would rot and die. We believe people are served by a similar team of experts and that leadership is a whole-self sport requiring multiple experts to facilitate peak performance.

We aim to explore the whole elephant and galvanize your growth into a strong, tall, flexible, and bountiful tree. This is why we don’t just focus on leadership, we focus on the whole person.

Is building without burnout important to you? Get in touch, www.atlasq.com.

Richard Smythe