How Can Leaders Use Metaphors to Lead?

How Can Leaders Use Metaphors to Lead?

Unless you are educated in metaphor, you are not safe to be let loose in the world.

--Robert Frost

Truth be told, a better title for this post might be, “How can leaders use metaphors with clear intent to lead?”

Metaphors are pervasive in our language, and therefore they influence our thinking and meaning making in nearly every sentence we utter. This is both a problem and an opportunity for leaders when speaking to their stakeholders.

The problem comes because we rarely think about or examine the taken-for-granted ideas and beliefs embedded in our metaphors. The opportunity is present because, with a positive intention, we can use metaphors to help people understand events and build a shared meaning. The oft-quoted phrase that “words are worlds” comes to mind here. Our utterances and our words as leaders not only project our inner world of meaning but also invite people into that world–for agreement, co-creation, or conflict.

Being mindful and focused in their intent as leaders AND having examined their own metaphors for leadership and their organizations (see past blogs) places these leaders in an ideal place from which they can guide change, no matter how challenging or disruptive the circumstances may be.

Metaphors are the very stuff with which human beings make sense of the world. A truly effective metaphor uses the intuitive properties of the mind to help people see similarities in what they have experienced in a new context. Metaphors have the potential to build a bridge from what people currently know to what is unknown, from the familiar to the unfamiliar. Metaphors are a particularly important leadership tool because they help people in an organization understand and interact with situations that otherwise would be too abstract and too complex to make sense of easily.

"Our utterances and our words as leaders not only project our inner world of meaning but also invite people into that world–for agreement, co-creation, or conflict."

Therefore, leaders can use metaphors to help those they lead make sense of their current circumstances. What is implied here is that a significant role any leader plays is to be the manager of meaning. To manage the most difficult meaning making when an entire organization must cope with the complexity of organizational life, the mindful and effective use of metaphors can accelerate the sense making by creating shared visual images in the minds of the people within the organization.

To illustrate the point, here is a quote from Howard Schultz of Starbucks that he used when returning as CEO in 2008 to address a cascade of issues that threatened the organization’s culture and future. He said, “There's a metaphor Vincent Eades likes to use: ‘If you examine a butterfly according to the laws of aerodynamics, it shouldn't be able to fly. But the butterfly doesn't know that, so it flies.’”

The changes in the organization after that time were significant: a huge organization re-evaluated its culture and path forward as a sustainable organization. In interviews, Schultz said that he spends ninety percent of his day in communications and reminding people about what made them great. Schultz continued to reinforce the metaphor: no matter how big it had become, Starbucks could still fly.

What examples have you seen of powerful metaphors used by leaders to guide an organization or team through change?

“An idea is a feat of association, and the height of it is a good metaphor.”

--Robert Frost

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