What's Your Metaphor for Leadership?

What's Your Metaphor for Leadership?

A simple question I ask leaders I am coaching is, “What is your metaphor for leadership?”

Using an approach called Coaching Narratively, which leverages the power of language, I have found that metaphors are the shortest pathway into a leader’s taken-for-granted beliefs and ideas about what they believe it means to be a leader. Leaders’ language, if we know what to listen for, provides clues and evidence about what has been socially instilled into their inner thoughts, decisions, and actions.

Before discussing some of the ways that metaphors can shape someone’s leadership, here are some of the reasons metaphors are so powerful:

1. They are generative because they come out of the imagination: Metaphors allow room for interpretation because they are visual imaginings and therefore unique to each person’s imaginal world. The physical nature of metaphors keeps our imaginings in a shared world but allows us to open our thinking, inspire creativity, and invite others to discover complementary meanings.

2. They take complex ideas and make them accessible. A saying I have heard is, “If a picture is worth a thousand words, then a metaphor is worth a thousand pictures.” Metaphors straddle simple and complex because they are from our everyday experience of the world AND because of this we can all bring our own experience to describing the metaphor. All these views bring in the complexity of many lives and many interpretations. Thus, we end up with a thick set of meanings for a simple metaphor. The accessibility of metaphors invites people into the conversation, even when discussing difficult subjects. As Annette Simmons has said, “they let us talk about dangerous things.”

3. They are universal. The concreteness and familiarity of metaphors allow us to talk about them no matter our background or upbringing. The combination of the concreteness and the imaginative characteristics of metaphor give us a way to capture the many things we see and may not be able to describe without the help of a metaphor. Discussing a metaphor can reveal new understandings that are often hidden in plain sight.

The accessibility of metaphors invites people into the conversation, even when discussing difficult subjects.

When working with leaders, I’ve seen that the use of metaphors can reveal the conceptual systems the leaders unconsciously use in their day-to-day, automatic actions. Working with metaphors, we can explore ideas about leadership, including concepts that are presupposed and therefore outside of our awareness.

Here are some examples of metaphors I’ve heard many leaders use to describe their roles:

  • Conductor of an Orchestra
  • North Star Finder
  • Commander in Chief
  • Hub of the Wheel
  • Master Chef

What is most important is to help leaders gain an understanding of why this metaphor, because as Lakoff and Johnson indicated in their book, “Metaphors We Live By,” “The essence of metaphor is understanding and experiencing one kind of thing in terms of another.” This means that if one carries a certain metaphor, that metaphor will likely translate to very particular leadership behaviors and choices.

Many of the initial metaphors that surface in this exploratory work contain the taken-for-granted ideas and beliefs about leadership that come from external ideas of what makes a good leader. These ideas are that a leader is out in front, with the libretto for what the group should be following. They are the one with the answers and who all others should orient to for guidance. THEY are the one that sees the future and are the expert at finding the way. What these leadership visions have in common is that they are individualistic, predominantly male, fit within a model of hierarchy, and demand a high degree of expertise. What they are NOT is social, connected, or egalitarian.

...if one carries a certain metaphor, that metaphor will likely translate to very particular leadership behaviors and choices.

By engaging the leader in an examination of what the metaphor may mean “in terms of another,” in this case what they value and believe about leadership, the leader can gain very personal and meaningful insights. These insights can lead to more conscious choices to demonstrate values and behaviors that are on a different path. Out of the insights a leader can create a new metaphor that can guide them in their leadership actions.

Working with the metaphor assumes the coach will maintain a decentered stance in the coaching vs. expert role. It’s the leader’s words—and the meanings associated with those words—that are tied to the stories and make associations that guide their leadership decisions. The coach provides questions that serve as scaffolding for how to tie the metaphor to the values, experiences, influences, and societal ideas that are hidden but active in their leadership.

In my experience, when leaders fully understand the power of metaphor they can be extremely creative in developing new metaphors for their leadership. Here are some powerful metaphors I have come across:

  • Rich Lyons, Dean of Haas Business School: Path Bending Leader
  • Mark McKergow and Helen Bailey: Leader as Host
  • Richard Boyatzis: Resonant Leader
  • Peter Fuda: Fire Stoker

What do each of these metaphors say to you?

When you try on each of the metaphors above, what do they get you thinking about?

I’d welcome hearing your thoughts and reactions. How have metaphors influenced your leadership?

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