If a picture is worth 1000 words, then a metaphor is worth 1000 picturesIn my previous blog post, I introduced 7 Metaphors for Leadership Transformation, which were derived from doctoral research findings on Leadership Transformation. These include Fire (motivation), Snowball (accountability and momentum), Master Chef (frameworks, tools and strategies), Coach (coaching), Mask (authenticity), Movie (self-reflection) and Russian Dolls (journey).

The metaphors were forged in the brutally honest reflections of a select group of successful leaders, and since then, my colleagues and I have used them to explain, inspire, and accelerate leadership transformation in leaders at all levels, in all types of organizations, all around the world.

I have already gotten a sense for the potential of these seven metaphors from my many speaking engagements and interactions with leaders and change agents over the past 12 months. To my great enjoyment, the question and answer periods would often entail audience members taking one of the metaphors in a direction that I had not conceived of at all.

There are three key reasons why I believe metaphors are powerful catalysts for transformation:

 

1. They open not close thinking. The seven metaphors listed above are designed to be generative in nature. Unlike lists, steps and formulas, which typically are rigid and don’t allow interpretation and personalization, the nature of metaphors is that they can be unfolded. They allow us to open not close thinking, to inspire not restrict creativity, and to invite the reader to discover complementary and related meanings and applications.

2. They make complex stuff simple. We use a saying in my organization, given to me by a great mentor; “if a picture is worth a thousand words, then a metaphor is worth a thousand pictures.” So for example, if I was to try and engage leaders in the theoretical basis for my approach to leadership transformation, I would be met with yawns – or worse. On the other hand, I have to be careful not to oversimplify what can be deep and multifaceted learnings. These are both challenges leaders face every day. Metaphors fill the space in between these extremes – they invite people into the idea, like a door into a big house. It’s much easier to explore the idea once you’re inside it (yes, I just used a metaphor to explain the power of metaphor).

3. They are familiar. I imagine if I’d come up with a seven step model for leadership transformation, people would find it hard to recount each step – even on a good day. And yet it seems very easy for leaders to remember and access these seven metaphors in their everyday work. Their familiarity means leaders can recall them easily, which is helpful when trying to change entrenched behavior – even when you’re having a bad day. Their familiarity also allows leaders to talk about them effectively with a group. As the organizational theorist Karl Weick once wrote, “People see more things than they can describe in words.”

 

BRINGING METAPHORS TO LIFE THROUGH STORY

A final thought on the power of metaphor. For me, a metaphor on its own is still not as impactful as a metaphor within a story. On their own they are interesting and eye opening, with the stories they are insightful and thought provoking. Let me illustrate with some examples from my research; when I asked leaders to express their leadership journey as a metaphor, these are some of the responses I got:

Clynton – Leaves changing colour

If I was to use a metaphor to describe this journey it would be the process that leaves go through in autumn. It is a gradual change of colour, it is hardly noticeable each day but if you look at where they start and where they finish it is dramatic and it is a really pretty picture.

Dennis – Snow skier
I can picture in my mind going from a beginner to an experienced snow skier. And it just seems to me that actually articulates the journey quite well. You start off snow ploughing and you have to put so much energy into achieving, relatively speaking, so little. And as you get better and better at skiing, you‘re putting far less energy into it, and you‘re achieving so much more. So you actually use all of the environment to your advantage; you‘re using the steepness of the mountain, you‘re using the amount of snow on the slopes, you‘re going down as quickly as you can in an exhilarating fashion, because you can use that terrain and you can use that environment to your advantage. I think when you‘re looking at doing this, you start out on the leadership journey, it‘s really hard because it‘s scary; you‘re not sure how people are going to react to it. And if you start using the environment to your advantage, you start to realise people really want to be led – they want to see that the business has a future. And if you can give them that, you‘ve freed up all their energies, that‘ll make the rest of your life so much easier to cope with.

Christine – Waking up

The metaphor that best describes my journey is an awakening. I say that because leadership is extremely hard work and, as leaders, we face many barriers – but I discovered over time that most of those barriers were in my head. It was like I was sleep walking, and then I woke up. I realized that in trying to live up to what is perceived as a strong leader – assertive and very task focused – I was holding back on my some of my natural leadership strengths. In other words, I was not being myself. Confidence and authenticity were the keys for me.

 

WHAT IS THE MOST POWERFUL METAPHOR YOU HAVE USED?

In our continuing pursuit of powerful metaphors we always listen carefully to our clients and partners and the way they communicate. I am always interested in hearing how they are used and the results that people achieve through the use of metaphors. To that end I would like to pose a question – what is the most powerful metaphor you have used, or seen used, and what was the response you got? Please post your responses in a comment on this blog. In coming posts we will use the responses as inputs into upcoming dialogue about leadership.

Want to keep reading? Here are some quick links to other blogs you may like;

7 Metaphors for Leadership Transformation
Why ‘Change Management’ is an Oxymoron
15 Qualities Of A Transformational Change Agent

4 thoughts on “3 Reasons Why Metaphors are Powerful

  1. Hi, I’m a professional business speaker. Even before I took on a speaking coach I found myself using metaphors more frequently; the audience connect better and they love it. I use a very powerful one to help each individual in the room to learn about themselves with regards to how successful they want to be. After I deliver the metaphor, the audience know how bad they want success and can identify whether they really want it, or just kind of want it. If you want to know what it is, you’ll need to get my book or hear me speak.

    The metaphor I’m going to share with you is the one that explains who I am and what I have to offer to my audience.

    BIG FISH LITTLE FISH
    As business owners and aspiring business owners, we’re all like fish in the sea. The big fish are the likes of Richard Branson and they’re swimming in the deep waters far out on the horizon in the deep blue ocean. The little fish are the small business owners, they’re swimming around the shallow waters among the choppy waters. The little fish are inspired by the big fish therefore the little fish are trying to swim towards them, but every time they start their journey a big wave comes along and smashes them back towards the shallow waters or even worse, the rocks where we get cuts and bruises. For some little fish, that one single wave is enough to make them give up. If you’re a little fish and you’re swimming in the shallow waters, how many times are you prepared to swim out to the deeper waters knowing too well you might get caught in that next wave and tossed back against the rocks?

    I’m not saying I’m a big fish, I’m still a relatively little fish, but even after being thrown against the rocks many times, I have managed to swim against the waves and jump the final breaker into the calm waters. To reflect upon this in business, the calm deeper waters is where I have a significantly large business that runs without me. I’m in a position where I can go traveling for a year and my business is still running and growing without me.

    Although the big fish are inspiring, they’re not at a realistic touching distance if you’re swimming in the shallow waters. I’m not in the deep ocean out on the horizon, I’m just the other side of the final breaker. I’m within realistic touching distance for the smaller fish to aspire to. Once you get this far, you can then set your sights on the deeper ocean now the rough choppy waters are behind you.

    I hope you like this metaphor. I use it so much I named my book after it…..Big Fish Little Fish.

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