BLG Leadership Insights Features

Shooting An Elephant

Many, if not most of us, can remember a time in which we were goaded into doing something that we didn’t want to do. Whether under the influence of overt peer pressure or more subtle social constructs we often say or do things that when alone we often come to regret.

In the same vein, many leaders succumb to a similar line of thinking. They become trapped under restrictive roles placed upon them. As such, the “strong” leader refuses to be seen negotiating, or a empathetic leader will refuse too appear too demanding. This phenomenon is highlighted by none other than George Orwell in his 1936 short story, Shooting an Elephant.

The story’s narrator is a young English policeman stationed in Burma who in his own words became a “puppet” to the desires and will of the natives.

After receiving a call regarding a normally tame elephant’s rampage the narrator, armed with a rifle heads to the bazaar where the elephant is presumably wrecking havoc. Entering one of the poorest areas, he receives conflicting reports and contemplates leaving, thinking the incident is a hoax.

The narrator then sees a village woman chasing away children who are looking at the corpse of an Indian whom the elephant has trampled and killed. He sends an orderly to bring an elephant rifle and, followed by a crowd of roughly two thousand, heads toward the paddy field where the elephant has stopped to graze.

The narrator originally sent for the elephant gun for his own protection, and when he sees that the elephant is obviously quite docile he knows that he need not kill it. At this moment he becomes aware that the crowd fully expects him to kill the elephant. He realizes that he is trapped by the crowd’s expectations and by his own fear of looking weak.

Below is an excerpt from the short story that sums up the narrator’s main dilemma:

“The people expected it of me and I had got to do it; I could feel their two thousand wills pressing me forward, irresistibly. And it was at this moment, as I stood there with the rifle in my hands, that I first grasped the hollowness, the futility of the white man’s dominion in the East. Here was I, the white man with his gun, standing in front of the unarmed native crowd-seemingly the leading actor of the piece; but in reality I was only an absurd puppet pushed to and fro by the will of those yellow faces behind. I perceived in this moment that when the white man turns tyrant it is his own freedom that he destroys. He becomes a sort of hollow, posing dummy, the conventionalized figure of a sahib. For it is the condition of his rule that he shall spend his life in trying to impress the “natives”, and so in every crisis he has got to do what the “natives” expect of him.”

In the end, the narrator ends up shooting the elephant, who dies a torturously slow death. The narrator, sensing the reader’s disgust at this turn of events, proceeds to justify his actions on legal grounds. He states that the death of the civilian gives him authority to take fire at the elephant.

Ultimately, our actions in the workplace are reparable, meaning we can usually fix our mistakes and return to some semblance of normalcy through persistent effort. However, those who perpetually abuse authority or fail to stand up to injustices often find that one’s name is much harder to rehabilitate. We cave in to others at our own peril.

Picture Credit: Otherthings