Leadership conundrum: The three-legged stool and delinquent elephants

One of the greatest tragedies in business today is the absence of demographic balance in organisational leadership and management teams. In particular, there is an absence of mature age executives. It’s been said many times (I firmly believe this to be true) that an employee doesn’t really become productive until they turn 50. At 50 their children have grown up, the pressure of the mortgage has diminished, etc. and finances are healthy.

How is lack of experience wreaking havoc?

On the work front, employees at 50, they have progressed up the tree – have experienced and learnt much and they are at their most productive and can make a powerful contribution in the business and for its shareholders. But instead, invariably they are shown the door and end up working at a hardware store or running a lawn mowing franchise instead.

The three-legged stool

Businesses (and govt) are making horrendous mistakes because the benefit of wisdom and experience are absent. In business, as in nature, there needs to be balance in composition of leadership and management teams. Hence the example of the three-legged stool.

  • Businesses need the benefit of age and wisdom from those that came before (leg 1).
  • Then there is benefit of maturity from those that are middle aged (leg 2)
  • The third and equally important leg is youth for this group needs to challenge the status quo i.e. the wise and mature. Wisdom and maturity must validate to the young, the reason for their decisions and the benefit to the business.

On being convinced and satisfied with the response, it’s youth that brings the energy and passion to get things done and accomplish the business objective. Unfortunately, today we have too many three-legged stools with one and two legs missing. For example, believing that an “all youth” team of “go getters” is what’s needed to achieve success.

Or equally devastating is when the mature and wise refuse to relinquish authority and shun new ideas or refuse to be challenged. Balance in leadership and management is vitally important – and it is inevitable that firms fall over when one or two legs are missing. Therein is the reason why so many businesses are failing and govt making horrendous decisions.

The delinquent elephants

Years ago, in a wildlife park in Africa, young adolescent bull elephants had inexplicably started killing other animals. Rangers could not explain why such unnatural behaviour was occurring until they realised the source of the problem. Years prior, the park had become overrun with elephants who were consuming all the vegetation and basically destroying the park.

So, it was decided that the solution was to cull the old bulls as they were regarded as the least needed in the overall ecology of the park. Unfortunately, the authorities had failed to understand the many roles of the old bull elephants in the eco system.

One key function was to use their superior strength and bulk to keep the adolescent bulls under control when they were in must – a period characterised by excessive testosterone levels that resulted in highly aggressive and dangerous behaviour.

On bringing mature bulls back into the park, balance and the natural order of things returned and the killing of other species by the adolescents ceased. Hence the similarities to today. 

Maturity and experience have been stripped out of business and govt decision making; and replaced by short-termism with little regard to future ramifications. As a result, shareholders and taxpayers are paying the cost and future generations will be the inheritors of this legacy!

Joe Perri is the founder of Joe Perri & Associates Pty Ltd.