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How to Tame a Wild Elephant

by Kim Ades December 13, 2013

The following article by Kim Ades was published in the December issue of T+D (ASTD’s award-winning monthly magazine covering workplace learning best practices, emerging technologies and trends.)

What does taming an elephant have to do with the corporate world?  Everything!  Taming an elephant requires persistence and determination and an unwavering desire to have some measure of control over a wild beast.  This is very similar to the process of training one’s mind to handle negative events or challenges with ease.  Just like an elephant, the mind has a tendency to run wild and thrash about causing unwanted havoc, particularly when it’s dealing with stress and negative circumstances.  Developing leaders in the area of mind management is the greatest challenge for corporate trainers and simultaneously has the largest implication on ROI.

Historically, training was borne from the need to develop tangible skills – like how to use heavy equipment or how to execute a process with precision from start to finish.  The focus was on helping people pick up practical skills that could be measured and applied instantly.  While we still provide this kind of training in many blue-collar environments, the focus of training has shifted over the years to include the softer side of development.  We now spend quite a bit of time, money, and energy attempting to develop individuals and teams in areas requiring mental discipline like communication, problem solving, and leadership.  Interestingly enough,  the impact of these training efforts have been less than easy to evaluate and many have questioned their worth over time.

Not too long ago, I had a conversation with a woman who had reached out to me after an ASTD webinar that I had conducted.  She asked me to help her understand why her leadership training program was not working.  I asked her to describe her program.  She explained, “Once a month a group of high-potential leaders from different departments in the company come in for a day-long training session focusing on leadership.  The expectation is that they attend all sessions and submit reports on their progress in between sessions.  The problem is that attendance keeps getting worse with every passing month and there is less and less reporting in between sessions.  I don’t know what to do.”  I then asked her to describe the kind of material that was covered in the day long training sessions. “We talk about the characteristics of a leader and we discuss the behaviors that leaders demonstrate.”

Instantly I knew that the primary downfall of her training program was the fact that it had little or no relevance for these high-potential leaders who probably had more pressing matters on their plate than discussing the characteristics of leaders.  Unfortunately, this problem is not uncommon in the training industry.

Here are some practical recommendations for trainers who are commissioned with developing individuals and teams in softer, less tangible areas like leadership.

  1. Create an individualized and highly customized training program by implementing a well-tested coaching process that focuses on leadership development rather than leaning on the traditional classroom-based training model.  With a coaching process in place, the content is not generic, but rather comes directly from the live, day to day, leadership challenges that are encountered on the job.  The goal here is to tune into the situations that crop up in participants’ real-world environments and use these to offer relevant, personal, and timely training.  For example if there is a conflict brewing between two people in their department, hone in on this as an opportunity to help them learn and develop real-time leadership skills that can be implemented immediately where measurable results can be observed.   The more relevant the training, the higher the level of engagement in the training process.  What is required in this scenario is a trainer who does not simply relay information, but rather one who can facilitate learning by helping participants to apply a leadership framework to concrete leadership problems.
  2. Focus on Emotional Resilience and Thought Management when implementing soft-skills coaching.  This is the elephant that I referred to at the beginning of this article as described by Zen Master Jan Chozen Bays in her book called “How to Train a Wild Elephant”.  Here she talks about the process of training the mind to focus on one thing at a time by eliminating distraction and noise to achieve major goals.  One of the largest distractions she refers to is one’s response to stress. Research has increasingly demonstrated that the ability to recover quickly from stress triggered by situational adversity the most significant factor influencing success.  Whether it’s recovering from the loss of an important client, or recovering from a production failure, or even recovering from an interpersonal blowout, being able to bounce back from a negative event and having the ability to leverage the challenging event is a skill well worth developing in leaders. Learning from the experience and/or turning it into a benefit is not the typical knee-jerk reaction that people display after a blow and yet this is the most powerful mind-management strategy that we can teach our up-and-coming leaders.   Rather than discussing leadership characteristics in a training setting, help participants to identify where their thinking detracts from their leadership impact and slows their recovery time after an adverse incident.
  3. Help participants expand the personal beliefs that promote success and trade up the beliefs that interfere with success.  Each one of us, leaders included, inherit a set of beliefs that assist the realization of our achievements and simultaneously hold a parallel set of beliefs that hinder our achievements.  These limiting beliefs come from a variety of sources like our parents, our friends, the media, and the tendencies that are embedded into our genetic make-up.  Helping participants to find the unique beliefs that stand in the way of their success and coaching them to take on a new set of more useful beliefs will have a monumental effect on their leadership skills and behavior.  For example, a leader that believes that the team is at a disadvantage because the competition has access to more resources might negatively impact the team’s ability to problem solve and tap into un-obvious resources.   A leader’s thinking and beliefs will determine the outcome of the whole team.  Ensure that the leader learns how to consciously monitor his or her own thinking and clean up limiting beliefs when they do not align with the goals that have been outlined for the company.
  4. Collect timely and relevant content by asking participants to journal in a private, online journal on a weekly basis (as opposed to creating reports that feel disconnected from their jobs).  Journaling prompts can be provided to stimulate and guide the journaling process.  An example of a prompt can be something like “ As a leader, who do you trust?”  or “What is your greatest work-related bottleneck and what do believe the source to be?” or even questions like “What do you think will enable you to be the best leader possible?”  and “How do people respond to your leadership?”  This will give you access to both the situational challenges that are hot and current as well as insight to the thinking and beliefs of that create wins and/or losses.  Asking probing questions will trigger greater reflection and introspection for each of the participants which, on its own, will deliver powerful results. The journaling process, if done in a group setting, will also serve to increase group cohesiveness and encourage both increased openness and a spirit of personal support in times of crises or difficulty.  The impact of this process has been known to have a tremendous positive effect on corporate culture.
  5. Do not underestimate the importance of the coach-client relationship.   The relationship that is built between the coach/trainer and the client is very important for laying the foundation for sustainable soft-skill development.  Here are some things to consider…

    a. Frequent contact provides many opportunities to really get to know each other and build a strong basis of trust and open communication.  Contact through weekly journaling in addition to monthly or weekly meetings will provide the infrastructure for practical and personal exposure.

    b. Story-telling provides access to client thinking and beliefs.  If you are requesting that the client share with you, do not hesitate to share your own stories in turn.  This will accelerate your ability to communicate openly and assist your client(s) in identifying and addressing the beliefs that are detrimental to their success. Using your own stories can also help the client understand abstract concepts in a more tangible and meaningful way.

    c. Focus on your own personal development and be an example to those you coach or train.   Spend time building your own emotional resilience muscles and work on strengthening the leadership, communication, and soft skill areas that you are teaching others to do.  The more able you are to naturally model your expertise in these areas, the greater your credibility as a coach/trainer.  If you need help, consider finding a coach of your own to assist you.

  6. Measure results.  Using a survey or questionnaire, ask your participants to measure the change in their results at the beginning, in the middle, and at the end of their training or coaching experience with you.  Here is a sample of the type of questions you can ask:

    On a scale of 1-10, where 1 is low and 10 is high

    a. How confident do you feel as a leader?
    How productive is your team?
    c. How equipped is your team to reach their objectives?
    d. How easy is it for you to communicate your vision?
    e. How much time do you spend putting out fires?
    These questions will measure both tangible a change in results as well as a change in leadership mindset.   Seeing a change over time will cement the value of your leadership training/coaching program within the organization.

Sidebar 1

Training for emotional resilience is the most important element in leadership development.  In order for effective training in this area, it is important to use personal context as the backdrop for training.  Invite leaders to bring their individual challenges and difficult interpersonal situations to the table as molding clay for real time learning and instant application.  The higher the relevance, the more sticky the learning.  When leaders can try on their new thinking and behaviors in their own work environment, as opposed to a simulated environment, the lessons become embedded more firmly and the learning experience is a lot more meaningful.

Sidebar 2

The inspiration for the title “How to Train a Wild Elephant” comes from a book written by Zen Master, Jan Chozen Bays and is a rich resource for anyone interested in practicing mindfulness in daily life. The exercises, although they are rooted in monastic practices, are skillfully related to the activities of ordinary life and help one to get a grasp on flexing the muscles of the mind to focus on living with far greater awareness and presence.  These mindfulness-based exercises can go a long way to helping leaders tune into their thoughts and identify the beliefs that limit their creativity, their ability to solve problems, and work in harmony with their team.


Kim Ades, MBA is president and founder of Frame of Mind Coaching and JournalEngineTM Software. Author, speaker, entrepreneur, coach, and mother of 5, Kim is one of North America’s foremost experts on performance through thought management By using her unique process of coaching through journaling, she works with high profile clients to unveil and switch their thought patterns to ignite significant organizational change and personal transformation.  Kim also trains hundreds of coaches annually in the art of incorporating journals into their coaching process with a focus on mindset and thought management. For an inside look at this unique coaching approach, go to

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