It’s a beautiful spring day in Hwange National Park, Zimbabwe.  We’ve just got back from our early morning safari drive. We began in the barely-light crisp cold, swaddled in fleece and thick woollen blankets.  We return under clear blue skies, our faces upturned to the emerging heat of the sun, our hearts full of the raw beauty of the landscape and animals we’ve encountered. But what does this have to do with Emotional Intelligence and being a better leader? All will be revealed, please bear with me!

With the smell of lunch in the air and the sound of the crickets starting up in the bush we spot a dozen or more elephants making their way in a graceful line to the waterhole, fifty or so metres away.  The professional photographers in the group, grab lenses and tripods to capture the playful babies and the protective mothers gathering at the water’s edge.

I’ve come armed with only a smartphone, which I’m realising is not at all equipped for long distances.

There are many ways of seeing the same thing

So I lie on the wooden decking, near the fire pit.  I tune out the other guests who are amused by my photographic technique.

As I am in Africa to research a leadership retreat, capturing the fire and the seats around it is also important to me. It’s not a perfect image – I miss the fact that a tree branch cuts through the herd and the camera can’t pick out the individuality of each elephant.

Yet we have a choice as to how we see things

From where I’m lying I can get a sense of perspective about how close the animals are to us; I can show the relationship between them and us.

I would never have become aware of this – never thrown myself down on the floor – if it had not been for my friend, and professional photographer, Rebecca Fennell.  Before leaving for Zimbabwe, Bex had given me a crash course in how to get great pictures with a smartphone.  One of the biggest lessons she passed on to me was:

“Most people just point their camera at the subject, they don’t think about how they should best relate to what they’re photographing.  Get down level with your subject.  Think about angles and light and what you want to show with that image.”

She showed me how different the bottles and glasses on the table in front of us looked, if taken from a more thoughtful height, paying attention to where the natural light was.

Photography is the art of paying attention

Zimbabwe collageFrom that moment on I have approached photography differently.  I began to notice more. On safari I could see the condensation on the water jugs as the day heated up or the reflections of the bush in the copper vases and mopane wood carvings.

Only because I was noticing.

It made me slow down and appreciate the beauty in the small things

Lisbon doors

A trip to Lisbon was transformed by a walk where I simply paid attention to all the different door handles in a street.  This tuning in to something so simple, but often overlooked, was like a meditation; all my other worries got pushed away.  When I looked up, everything else seemed more vivid – the blues of the tiles, the smell of rain on the cobbles, the screech of the tram brakes.

I think the way photographers approach their craft, holds lessons for leaders too:

Accept what you have and work with that

Bex again:

“The light is the light.  It’s not going to move to suit you. You have to move to take best advantage of it to get what you want.”

You can always want more resources, more time or more talented people. Leaders – like photographers – don’t waste time with “if only”.

Start with a good intention

Bex photographs normal people.  She’s taken my profile images and pictures of my team.  I don’t want to speak for anyone else, but I’m no Elle McPherson.  Yet Bex will seek to show me in my best light, without losing who I am as a person.

Leaders, too, bring out the best in their people by focussing on what they have, rather than what they don’t.  Leadership is supporting others to do well and become their best.

Be encouraging and upbeat

Mood matters as a leader.  Bex is a great example of taking responsibility for how her clients feel and respond in front of the camera.  I’ve seen her coax smiles and relax the shoulders of some stiff and self-conscious people.  As a leader, you can change the way people feel and how they perform, but it starts with you.

Be flexible and responsive to change

Natural light will change in an instant, the client’s mood might too.  By expecting this, by thinking ahead and planning alternatives, success can still be achieved.  In fact, forced improvisation can spark genuine innovation.

Stay mindful

Emotional intelligence is the art of noticing.  So is photography and leadership.  Can you remain aware of both the bigger goal and the smaller, changing details?What’s really in front of you?  What are you not seeing?  How can you appreciate and build on what you have?

Developing a leadership lens

Next time you’re in a situation which is frustrating you or not giving you what you want, could you think more like a photographer?  Could you change the angle or the light?

Could you take responsibility for the mood and the relationship?

How I can help

For a different perspective on leadership and how to be your best self, find out more about coaching  and how I work.


I would highly recommend journal writing. I joined one of Moyra’s journal safari sessions a couple of weeks ago and have been keeping a daily journal ever since. The main benefits for me is it’s helped me to keep perspective in these times, not to be too hard on myself and be thankful for the things I have achieved.

Justin Ellis

Innovation & Strategy, British retail bank