Sitting With Elephants Leads to Lessons for MBA Class

  • September 9th, 2019
A UA professor sits for a portrait in his office.
Dr. Ron Dulek

By Adam Jones

It’s the first day of the graduate course on management communication. Students sit neatly dressed in business casual clothes as the professor begins his lecture. Laptops open. Pens ready to write in clean notebooks.

The course catalog reveals the class will teach students to “develop a language to use to manage written and oral verbal skills in specific business environments.”

The first lesson: how elephants teach humility.

“We might be the only MBA program in the world that suggests you be humble,” Dr. Ron Dulek tells his class. “Interpersonal skills count, and people don’t like arrogance. Really great leaders aren’t arrogant.”

Dulek, a professor of management in The University of Alabama Culverhouse College of Business, spends the first class extracting lessons from his experience of nearly a decade of interacting with elephants near his second home in Africa. The thread that binds the lecture is humility.

“I think it’s important,” Dulek said on why he spends a full class on this lesson. “I’m a real believer in humility, particularly for MBAs because we’ve built them up so much. They can’t become effective business leaders, or human beings, unless we remind them of the benefits of being humble.”

Eleven years ago, Dulek and his wife bought a house in Sabie Park, South Africa. They spend summers at the house, separated by a wire fence from Kruger National Park, one of the largest wildlife preserves in the country.

After a few summers, Dulek told the safari guides of the park he wanted to learn how to approach a wild elephant.

“You have to assume an air of humility,” Dulek said in a TedX Tuscaloosa talk in 2018.

For four years, the elephants would start charging when approached. The guides told Dulek he had not been humble enough in his approach.

A UA professor lies down near a herd of elephants
It took several years, but Dr. Ron Dulek finally gained the trust of elephants that live near his home in South Africa. Photo courtesy of Dulek.

Eventually, he encountered an elephant near his home, and he stood his ground with his head down. She stopped and stood there for a minute before walking off. She came back the next day, and slept near their fence. It was an example of trust, the guides told Dulek.

The next summer, a herd of elephants came to the fence to sleep, and Dulek approached them and was able to sit near them.

“It was absolutely an amazing experience,” Dulek said.

Over several encounters, he was able to sleep near them, and even met, in a way, the herd’s young.

“This concept of seeing life through a humble lens has significantly changed the way I approach things,” he said.

Humility allows someone to listen to others, learn from others’ perspectives and love others, Dulek said.

His students watch the talk before the first class, and Dulek uses that as a base for his first lesson.

His experience with elephants teaches that people need more than quantitative data and analytical thinking to succeed.

“There are beautiful mysteries,” he tells his students. “There may be forces we can’t figure out on an Excel spreadsheet. If we can totally turn business into analytics, then we don’t need you.

“If we can do it analytically, we can do it with a computer. If you’re going to add value, the value has to be on top of the analytics, not because of the analytics.”

The University of Alabama, the state’s oldest and largest public institution of higher education, is a student-centered research university that draws the best and brightest to an academic community committed to providing a premier undergraduate and graduate education. UA is dedicated to achieving excellence in scholarship, collaboration and intellectual engagement; providing public outreach and service to the state of Alabama and the nation; and nurturing a campus environment that fosters collegiality, respect and inclusivity.