Its all about those elephants, fireflies, ants and eagles

May 4, 2009
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When observing people, I often link them to the stereotypical references of animals. Elephants (those who rely on their great memories to live in the past), Fireflies (those who live for the moment without worry about yesterday or fearing tomorrow), Ants (those who plan endlessly for the future) and Eagles (those who soar above the crowd) can all be easily identified.

Elephants have great memories. They never forget where they came from or where they are going. Dwelling in the past, however, can lead to a rather myopic view on life. While elephants learn from their mistakes, they seldom challenge conventional wisdom in order to gain more from less, or seek rewards where they have never been found. Elephants travel paths upon which they’ve always traveled, they visit ponds where they’ve always bathed, they feed in areas where they’ve always found food, and they return to their graves in areas that are traditionally “hallowed ground” for the elephant kingdom.

Does anyone you work (or live) with remind you of an elephant? If you seek to travel new paths or break new ground, elephants will tend to hold you back against a more familiar backdrop. Their success will be measured and compared to what’s happened in the past rather than what could happen in the future. Elephants focus their vision on what is directly in front of them, as guided by what was in front of them yesterday. Elephants have a place as historians in the world but should not be placed in a leadership role unless you truly seek a return to the way things used to be.

Fireflies flicker and shine in the moment, with no awareness of where they came from or care about where they are going. They exist in the present. In reality, however, when does the “present” become “past”? When we consider our actions, our minds perceive events about one-fifth of a second after they have actually happened — after our senses tell us something has happened. So whenever we consider the present, we are already looking at the past. The realities we perceive never fully coincide with the realities around us. People, like fireflies, can be illuminators of the moment. Because all actions impacting them occur before they are fully defined by thoughts, however, they can never truly be who they think they are at the moment they perceive. Our actual moment of being in the present is infinitesimally small, having no lasting place within the continuum of time. Fireflies are actualized between the constantly shifting memories of who they once were and who they have not yet become. People who seek to “live
in the moment” are much like fireflies — shining their flickering light without purpose in an ever-changing world.

Ants work and worry all day long, seeking food and storing it for a rainy day that may or may not come. Ants work to take care of tomorrow’s anticipated needs based on today’s reality — but if the needs of tomorrow are different from the reality of today, they are ill prepared to face them. Ants live in a narrow world having a focused charge. They seek safety in where they are going, often giving little thought to where they are headed or what they might find on arrival. Storing up for tomorrow can provide great security — but preparation without preservation or anticipation can be filled with danger. Ants bury their treasure in the ground. If we were to do the same, how would it grow? Ants anticipate tomorrow’s requirements based on today’s needs. If we were to do the same, how could we compete within an ever-changing global economy? Ants do as they are expected. Without challenging the status quo, how can we ever advance ourselves? Ants, while dedicated to a mission and fastidious in their tasks, are not leaders.

Eagles are graceful hunters. They are seemingly effortless in their flight — yet ruthless in their actions. Living in relative seclusion, they do not compromise their position. Eagles soar, rising above thermals, always seeking and searching. They scout the paths traveled by animals in the past, circling high above, waiting for the right moment to strike a swift, fatal blow. Today is only a moment in time for the eagle as it moves gracefully into tomorrow, confident of its abilities to care for itself and its family through its cunning and strength. Business leaders are often associated with eagles — rising above the crowd to see life from a different perspective. They rely on the past to provide a means toward sustenance today. They leverage their own abilities to create a safe and secure tomorrow. Eagles recognize and acknowledge there is little that can be done about what one cannot control, so they choose to harness the winds for their own purposes to impose the greatest control one can ever attain.

Individual differences, when used to complement each other, can make ours a world of prosperity and power. When isolated and singled out, however, individual differences become a fatal flaw destined to destroy civilization. Intentionally choosing to live among a jungle full of elephants, fireflies, ants, and eagles should incorporate each one’s differences into your own reality as you seek to make “people matter” in your world.

David J. Smith is president and CEO of The Employers’ Association, a not-for-profit provider of human resource solutions since 1939.

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