In 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.
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