Metaphors for Leadership

Guest Blogger: Ken Byler, Owner, Higher Ground Consulting Group, LLC

Metaphors are literary devices. It’s a concept of understanding one thing in terms of another.

Take ideas as one example. We might describe them metaphorically as “food for thought”. In the context of the workplace, we might “stew on those ideas” or “regurgitate them to others.” Some might appear “half-baked to us” while others require “time to digest.”

Why We Use Metaphors

Metaphors help us to make sense of the abstract and are far more prevalent in our daily lives than we might care to admit.

Metaphors for leadership abound. We are explorers, pioneers, teammates, elders, innovators, commanders, troubleshooters, gurus, micro-managers, coaches, shepherds, servants, teachers, and much more.

Many of the most popular leadership metaphors come from the worlds of war and sports.

These domains offer rich and powerful imagery that appeal to our human need for power and control. We can “shoot down an opponent’s argument”, “defend our turf”, “target our competition”, “play to win”, and “break the rules.”

This emphasis on managing through fear and control, combined with a need to win, has elevated this perspective about leadership to a position of prominence.

Alternative Leadership Metaphors

These aggressive leadership metaphors might be replaced with shepherd or gardener. Here the focus is on “nurturing growth”, “developing people”, and “guiding and caring for others.” The difference in approach and perspective between these contrasting leadership metaphors is palpable.

Which metaphor is more appealing to the followers who serve under each domain?

Metaphors carry weight and infiltrate our conversations in ways we don’t even realize. If a leader chooses the metaphors of war or sports, those words carry implicit and explicit meaning. Sometimes these messages suggest unethical behaviors or may not translate well across cultural norms.

The metaphors of shepherding and gardening may be perceived as weakness, rather than understood as creating an environment where grace and love can flourish. Yes, these attributes belong in today’s stressful workplace!

One More Thing

What leaders say and do is regularly expressed in the form of metaphors. Our attitudes, goals, and actions often reveal our own deeper understandings of leadership.

When we choose a metaphor, consciously or unconsciously, we are communicating what we believe about ourselves and our roles. Perhaps it is time to revisit the leadership metaphors that permeate our conversations.

Lao Tzu’s words ring true from centuries ago, “The best leaders value their words, and use them sparingly. When they have accomplished their task, the people say, ‘Amazing!’ We did it, all by ourselves!’”

Filed in: Client News