The importance of an elephant and a rider in your veterinary practice

The importance of an elephant and a rider in your veterinary practice

When your practice is facing changes, consider the necessity of two different outlooks.
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Jul 05, 2018


Charging forward to change as one. (Photo: Shutterstock.com)My wife and I just returned from our most recent adventure that took us literally halfway around the world and home again as we traveled to Sri Lanka, Indonesia and Singapore. The trip involved seemingly unending flights, layovers and delays, and cancellations. So while in Yogyakarta airport with a little time on my hands, I headed over to an airport bookstore for some light reading. I should have watched in-flight movies …

Without taking sides, I’ve been struggling with the increasing divisions in our society, and a book practically jumped off the shelf at me: The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion. Now let me be clear. I am not an erudite or abstract person. But I do read a lot of what my wife refers to as “weird stuff,” and I recognized the name of the author, Jonathan Haidt. He wrote a very influential, though no less challenging, read called The Happiness Hypothesis that I had struggled through a few years ago. In that book, Haidt, a professor of social and moral psychology at New York University, originated a model of the rider and the elephant—essentially about how we get in and stay out of our own way in life.

The main premise of the model is that the human brain has two sides always engaged. The rider represents the rational, analytical, detail-focused side of our thinking. He is a small fellow perched on the back of an elephant that is nonanalytical, impossible to control, and driven by emotion and instinct. Since the rider cannot possibly force the elephant in a particular direction, he must rely on influencing the elephant to go in a direction or perform a task by knowing what the elephant wants and providing it.

When we travel, particularly to far-off places, my wife and I have specific roles. She is the detail team who makes all the reservations and arrangements. Thus, she is the elephant rider. She keeps me on track, determines a clear path forward and removes any obstacles.

That makes me the elephant here. Besides carrying our bags, I believe in preparation before travel and try to have a passing knowledge of what we want to see and do—Buddhist temples and monuments, some as old as Christianity; wildlife, from Asian elephants to leopards; diving among bizarre and colorful marine life; watching men balanced above the surf on poles fishing for fish just a few inches long; and eating a traditional Singapore meal of chicken and rice in a tiny café in Singapore’s Chinatown. Lots to see, lots to do and lots of hours to fill in the air.

Now, I think both of these books are real eye openers—if you can stay awake to read them. (Maybe they will come out with Cliffs Notes versions.) Both will test your resolve. There’s a nutshell take-home message for each that makes it all worth reading—but I’m not going to encourage you too much. There are several presentations on YouTube that give the gist.

Psychologists Dan and Chip Heath have written a number of popular books that elaborate on Haidt’s elephant-and-rider model. In their books, the rider is the planner who can accomplish little without the strength of the elephant. The rider must focus on consistency and clarity. Be clear in your expectations, the authors advise; help to remove obstructions, prevent distractions and provide rewards to the elephant. Here are some quotes from chapter one of Switch by the Heath brothers:

Changes often fail because the Rider simply can’t keep the Elephant on the road long enough to reach the destination.

To make progress toward a goal … requires the energy and drive of the Elephant.

The Rider’s great weakness: spinning his wheels.

A reluctant Elephant and a wheel-spinning Rider can ensure nothing changes. But when Elephants and Riders move together, change can come easily.

So if you find your elephant is like ours and easily distracted by shiny objects and straying off track or you feel yourself stuck in the rut of too much emphasis on detail, ask, “How can I get the elephant and the rider moving together?”

In your veterinary practice, major course corrections are unlikely if not impossible, so the key is for the rider to focus on the clarity of the path and the fact that we all travel it together. Rewards, acknowledgment and praise do much to keep the elephant on track and reduce distractions.

Dr. Mike Paul is the former executive director of the Companion Animal Parasite Council and a former president of the American Animal Hospital Association. He is currently the principal of MAGPIE Veterinary Consulting. He is retired from practice and lives in Anguilla, British West Indies.