In today’s blog, I’d like to introduce another one of the 7 Metaphors for Leadership Transformation – Master Chef. The Master Chef metaphor is about artfully applying leadership “science”—frameworks, tools, and strategies for change—to help make transformation happen. Over time, leaders can and should advance from amateur cook to master chef, using their skills with increasing creativity and flair and thus maximizing their impact.

First, there are the frameworks. In the Master Chef metaphor, the framework is the equivalent of the chef’s recipe. To help leaders get a handle on the ever-changing nature of today’s business environment, there are hundreds, maybe even thousands of recipes for change available in books, at seminars, online, and elsewhere. Many of these use similar ingredients, such as setting a goal and then laying out a rational, step-by-step program for achieving it. Just as an amateur cook takes comfort from a step-by-step recipe, a business leader—especially one who feels relatively unsophisticated—can take comfort from a carefully crafted framework. By framework, I mean a map of the key activities, time frames, milestones, and commitments on the road to change. But for me, the methods are far less interesting than the dynamic interaction between instructions on the one hand, and the person using them on the other. Great chefs alter their recipes depending on the season, and the available ingredients. Similarly, business leaders can alter their framework to take advantage of a changing business context.

Second, there are the tools. Just as chefs can select from many different utensils when creating a dish, business leaders have many tools at their disposal, including ones that profile or measure a range of attributes such as behavior, personality, values, strengths, and thinking styles. There are some great tools available for leaders and change agents, including my favorite tool – Leadership Impact™ developed by Dr. Robert Cooke, associate professor emeritus of Managerial Studies at the University of Illinois at Chicago and CEO of Human Synergistics International. However, a great tool is no guarantee of transformation. To return to the Master Chef metaphor, an amateur chef cannot achieve the same precision with a utensil as someone who has honed their technique. Take experienced sushi chefs, who over many years have developed an artful application of their sushi knives. An amateur chef using exactly the same knives is unlikely to replicate their results. They are also unlikely to have a full appreciation of how dangerous these tools can be when used with poor technique! Leaders who artfully apply tools use them to create shared language and shared meaning on the pathway to change.

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In this blog, I’d like to talk about one of the 7 Metaphors for Leadership Transformation – Coach. The Coach metaphor is not about how leaders become a coach, it’s about how leaders enable themselves to be coached by others. Today, coaching is used in a wide range of professional disciplines including business, education, and psychology. When you think about coaching in these contexts, the image that probably comes to mind is a one-to-one consultation that takes place behind closed doors, detached from the real work environment. In contrast, our research led me to explore the use of the word within the context of sport and how that somewhat different use applies to leadership transformation.

The  captain of a soccer team, for example, will draw inspiration and expertise from his or her coaching staff, team mates, and supporters in a way that promotes success.  In business, the coaching equivalents are consultants, colleagues, and even family members. In my research and professional practice, I have found that a combination of coaching from these three stakeholder groups makes for the most effective and fast-moving transformations among leaders.

Sporting metaphors are, of course, not new in business, and are often related to individualistic and competitive behaviors. My interpretation, however, is quite different: for me, soccer is a team sport. Teams comprised of superstars often lose to cohesive teams of individually inferior players. While a business leader may be seen to be the captain of a team, there is an important distinction to be drawn between the role of captain and coach. And while the captain may have been selected for the role because of a certain leadership quality he or she displays, a captain cannot be successful without support from the team.

Recently, I got a taste of my own medicine in the form of a one-on-one coaching session with four-time World Light Welterweight Boxing Champion Kostya Tszyu. Not so long ago, Kostya was considered by many to be the best pound for pound boxer on the planet. I successfully bid for this session at a charity auction last year – it seemed like a great idea – right up until my vision became blurry and I nearly blacked out (and that was just from the warm up).

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In my previous post I spoke about the Mask Metaphor – one of the 7 Metaphors for Leadership Transformation that came out of my original research. Through the case study of Mike we looked at the mask of the Phantom; how leaders conceal perceived imperfections from their audience in favor of a polished façade.

But there was a second type of masking that we saw in our research; the adoption of a persona that is misaligned with a leader’s authentic self, values, or aspirations.

To explore this mask, I draw from Chuck Russell’s 1994 film The Mask starring Jim Carrey.

If you haven’t seen the movie, Jim Carrey’s character, Stanley Ipkiss is a shy man who discovers a mysterious green mask. The mask transforms him into a confident, aggressive, and outgoing “superhero.” With Loki’s mask, Stanley becomes the man he thinks he needs to be in order to succeed in life – and get the girl.

In contrast to the Phantom, people perceive Stanley as the mask rather than as someone hiding behind a mask. Adopting this persona and alienating people pushes Stanley to learn that the mask isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. It’s not until Stanley eventually rids himself of his mask – which takes some doing – that he gets his happy ending.

Similarly in my research and experience, I have learnt that there is an inevitable pain and detachment experienced by a leader when they mask their authentic self. By exposing their vulnerability and dropping this mask, leaders inspire their followers to do the same, ending in a more aligned relationship between the leader and their followers.


Christine was the highly articulate and ambitious CEO of a credit reporting and debt collection company that was part of a very macho industry. Christine had agreed on a plan to transform this organization through a private equity arrangement that held great potential, but unprecedented risk as well. Christine responded to these pressures by tightening control, leaving nothing to chance, and demonstrating a tough, take-no-prisoners style of management.

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… it was one of the first themes that arose out of my research on how leaders transform, and I can’t say that I was surprised.

Much has been written about this subject in the business world, including substantive works by Harvard scholar Professor Bill George and his colleagues (Authentic Leadership: Rediscovering the Secrets to Creating Lasting Value, 2003), and leadership and culture experts Rob Goffee and Gareth Jones (Why Should Anyone Be Led By You, 2006).

Over time, the leaders that I studied became far more authentic and, consequently, much more effective than at the start of their journeys.

But in order to reach these higher levels of authenticity and effectiveness, each leader had to drop the mask that he or she was wearing.

One way leaders use a mask is to conceal perceived inadequacies and flaws to preserve the polished facade we have come to expect of “great” leaders. The other, more subtle way is to adopt a certain persona at work that the leader feels is necessary for success. Both uses undermine trust and effectiveness. They also create inner conflict, as leaders struggle to align their work and home lives.

In this post, I wish to explore the mask of concealment, and in doing so, I draw an analogy to the Phantom from Andrew Lloyd Webber’s epic musical The Phantom of the Opera.

In the Phantom of the Opera, the Phantom wears a mask to conceal his physical imperfections.  But despite presenting a perfect, porcelain face to his audience there is a certain irony present…

It is starkly obvious that the mask is not real. Even still, the phantom prefers to maintain a façade than reveal the person behind the mask.

The application of this metaphor as it applies to leadership is best illustrated by Mike, one of the leaders in my doctoral research. I will tell Mike’s story in depth in my upcoming book Leadership Transformed, but for now I wanted to give you a flavor of his experience via the short video footage below. The footage is taken from the Mask chapter of our original documentary Beyond the Superhero. Before we launch in, here is some context on Mike’s story.

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In my previous post, I outlined the Snowball metaphor – one of my 7 Metaphors for Leadership Transformation. One of the things that seems to interest people the most when I talk about this metaphor is the CEO case study of Clynton, specifically the knock on effect of his vulnerability when he admitted his shortcomings to his team, and then to his entire organisation.

It sounds counter-intuitive – that a very public display of vulnerability is the key to unleashing layers of transformation throughout the organization! But there is a growing body of research to suggest that a willingness to be vulnerable underpins our human capacity for connection, empathy, compassion, growth (the list goes on…).

Some of the most profound research in this space is the work of Brene Brown, who recently published book Daring Greatly sky-rocketed to the top of the international best seller lists.

Brene talks about the case study of Clynton and the ‘snowball effect’  from the perspective of her own research in an interview with Johnathon Fields (author and innovation expert) on the Good Life Project.

If you have time and are interested in Brene’s research, the entire 50 minute clip is well worth a watch. If you want to go directly to the three minute part about Clynton, you can find it at the 22 minute mark.

In my next blog post, I will be talking further on the theme of vulnerability when I share another of my metaphors for leadership transformation – Mask.

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

Snowball is loose!
Eliminating friction and drag from your Snowball
Video Case study of the ‘SNOWBALL’ effect

In an earlier post, I outlined the 7 Metaphors for Leadership Transformation that came from my doctoral research.

I am very humbled by the amount of interest this has generated through social media and in recent speaking gigs.

I made a commitment to elaborate on each metaphor over the coming months – we’ve already seen the first one – ‘FIRE’ with a three minute animation and CEO case study. So here’s the second one –‘SNOWBALL’.

What does this unlikely metaphor have to do with leadership transformation???

The ‘snowball’ metaphor is often used to describe when something small and potentially insignificant builds upon itself over time, thereby becoming large, powerful, and even unstoppable. Case in point, Wile E. Coyote from the Road Runner cartoons being swept up in a snowball as he careers down a mountain!

One reason I love the snowball metaphor is that there are two distinct motions (see picture below). Motion 1 is where the snowball spins round and round on itself, like a self-amplifying cycle. Motion 2 is the ever increasing speed of the snowball down the mountain. These two motions helped me to make sense of two important themes that came out of my research on how leaders transform – accountability and momentum.

I liken Motion 1 to a cycle of mutual accountability that develops among leaders who each commit to agreed leadership standards. Importantly, this accountability holds between leaders and subordinates, regardless of their position in the formal hierarchy. It starts off small, with the individual leader, and grows bigger and bigger as more leaders are ‘swept up’ in the process. Inevitably, this creates Motion 2 of the snowball; momentum towards the stated leadership goals.

This effect is perhaps best described by one of the leaders in my research – Clynton – who in fact gave me the metaphor in the first place! I’ll be talking about Clynton’s story in depth in my forthcoming book Leadership Transformed. In the meantime, I’d like to share a little bit of his story here, and some of his footage from our documentary Beyond the Superhero. If you’d like a little background on his story, here it is below.

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My colleagues and I are often asked to ‘decode’ the process of business transformation and provide the repeatable ‘formula’ for success. I guess this is understandable given that widely quoted statistic – you know the one – that 70% of all change efforts fail.

In a way, this interest in our work is very humbling. In another way, it’s pretty darn intimidating. Our practices have evolved organically around our clients and our people over time, and along with it, so has our so called ‘formula’ for transformation.

One thing I do know for certain is that the role of the change agent – internal and external – is critical in any transformation process. Recently, I’ve been asked to speak quite a bit on this topic; to effectively answer the question “What does it take to be a transformational change agent? It’s been a personally challenging and exciting journey to try and articulate my thoughts, so let me share with you what I’ve learned.


In our own practice, as well as in my observation of others, I’ve identified fifteen attributes that the best change agents appear to share.

These are classified as DOING (the specific skills and methods for creating change), SEEING (the ability to make sense of, and reshape perceptions of ‘reality’) and BEING (personal characteristics and qualities).

In my experience, one of the biggest traps for change agents is an over-whelming emphasis on ‘DOING’. This is understandable given it’s ‘the stuff’ of change, and is readily observable and actionable. It is now, however, my very strong belief that the most effective ‘DOING’ is preceded by ‘SEEING’, which, in turn, is preceded by ‘BEING’.

Below is how I have codified the key attributes of the transformational change agent under these three headings. While we have used these attributes as an internal benchmark in our company for a while, I’ve only begun speaking about them publicly very recently. The very positive response has only served to invigorate my belief in the value of this content.


DOING – the specific skills and methods for creating change

1. They create a setting for success, without needing to control the process

2. They artfully apply frameworks, models and tools

3. They provide correction to senior executives without causing resentment

4. They appeal to the heart (emotion) and then the head (logic)

5. They make a call to action

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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.”


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In a couple of earlier blog posts, I revealed my FIRE metaphor; the motivational forces that initiate and sustain transformation efforts.  I shared a three minute animation outlining the necessary shift from burning platform to burning ambition.  And I shared the case study of Tim, an advertising CEO who co-founded Earth Hour – after he had connected with his burning ambition for a ‘big and authentic life’.

The Fire metaphor is one of seven metaphors that evolved from my doctoral research on Leadership Transformation.  Over the last two years, I have tested and applied these metaphors in consulting, speaking and teaching engagements to more than 10,000 leaders on four continents. They have proven to be a reliable catalyst for purposeful reflection and meaningful action. The seven metaphors will be featured in my upcoming book Leadership Transformed, which is set for release in July 2013 by Amazon Publishing. In addition, I will be featuring content and case studies relating to the metaphors in future blog posts and facilitating discussion. I am genuinely excited to see how they morph and evolve as people interpret them through their own unique context and experience.

I have briefly listed out a summary of all seven below, and will be elaborating on them in future blog posts:

1. FIRE: The motivational forces that initiate and sustain transformation efforts; including a burning platform and burning ambition, as well as personal and organizational reasons for change.

The Fire, or the big why is actually a crucial part of how leaders transform. As Nietzsche said, “he who has a why to live can bear almost any how”. Fire is central to the other six metaphors, because if the fire goes out, all other factors are redundant.

2. SNOWBALL: A virtuous snowball of accountability that propels the change effort forward; starting with the leader, and building momentum as others are ‘swept up’ in the journey.

Momentum is contingent upon getting a critical mass of leaders on the journey, exiting those who are not committed, and embedding constructive leadership in the organisation’s systems and structures. At this point, the snowball is almost impossible to stop.

3. MASTER CHEF: Artful application of the ‘leadership science’ (frameworks, tools and strategies), which enable a leader to advance from amateur cook to ‘master’ chef.

Pioneering French chef Marcel Boulestin once said “cooking is not chemistry, it’s an art. It requires instinct and taste rather than exact measurements”. Similarly, transformation is accelerated when leaders work fluidly within a recipe (change frameworks), and artfully deploy their utensils (tools) and cooking methods (strategies).

4. COACH: A team of consultant(s), colleagues and supporters that collectively coach a leader toward their aspirations.

The leader is likened to captain of a sporting team who receives coaching from a variety of sources, both on-field and off-field. Coaching is most powerful when all groups identify mutually beneficial outcomes from the leader’s transformation, and create a trusting environment for that coaching to take place.

5. MASK: Concealment of imperfections, or adopting a persona, which is misaligned with a leader’s authentic self, values or aspirations.

The mask is a heavy burden to uphold; it creates inner conflict with a leader’s deeply held values and aspirations, and can negatively impact on important relationships. When leaders drop their mask in favor of being their ‘authentic self’, the power this unleashes is atomic in scale; they get more done, build more trust, have far more enriching interactions and feel more fulfilled.

6. MOVIE: Processes of self-awareness and reflection, which allow a leader ‘edit’ their performance, and direct a ‘movie’ in line with their leadership vision.

Often, leaders find themselves in their own version of Groundhog Day, living the same reality day after day with the same result. After many visits to the editing suite, leaders can hone their reflective capacity, and eventually, learn how to slow down their movie. From this place of stillness, leaders can draw upon past learnings, and their ever expanding repertoire of tools and strategies, and choose a better response – in real time.

7. RUSSIAN DOLLS: A complimentary set of journeys that interact with a leader’s personal journey of transformation.

A leader’s journey personal journey never exists in isolation; there is most often a team journey, an organizational journey, and a journey of the up-line environment such as the corporate parent. And there can be even more journeys, or ‘dolls’ in the set.When all of the dolls fit neatly within one another, they have the potential to travel well together. Conversely, whenever one doll tries to pull in a different direction, its proximity to the other dolls ensures that it doesn’t get very far.


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Why change efforts failIt is widely quoted that 70% of change efforts fail, and that change failure is the number one reason executives get fired.  More and more, we hear about change fatigue, change failure, and resistance to change.  For example, Rosabeth Moss Kanter wrote a compelling and highly popular blog on Harvard Business Review on the ’10 Reasons People Resist Change’ .

It is my belief that most change efforts are built upon the shaky foundation of five flawed assumptions; the shakiest of which is the very notion that change can be managed.  The primary tools of change management are the change manager and the change plan, but in the immortal words of the great poet and pugilist, Mike Tyson;

“Every man has a plan to beat me, until I punch him in the face ”

Based on 12 years of research and practice, I have come to the conclusion that anyone seeking to make change or create transformation should prepare to be metaphorically ‘punched in the face’ at regular intervals on this journey. It can’t be managed; it must be led. If we accept that in the modern business environment change is the only constant, then leading it must be the day job of any organization’s most senior leaders.

I know it sound like semantics, but I don’t even like the concept of ‘change’, let alone change management. It is underpinned by notions of predictability, safety and control. It assumes that ‘the change’ will end and normality will be restored. I don’t know about your experience, but the leaders I’ve worked with laugh out loud at this idea.

I prefer the idea of transformation; it speaks to me of adaptability, resilience and potential. Its tools are not the change manager or the change plan, but new assumptions and beliefs, shared language, metaphors and stories. In transformation, trajectory is more important than absolute outcomes and you don’t let perfect get in the way of better. You get moving and course correct as you go. The goal is not to restore order, but to build an unstoppable ‘snowball’ of momentum towards the organization’s most important goals.

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

15 Qualities Of A Transformational Change Agent
We are using a set of beliefs and assumptions that no longer serve us (Friction Source #1)
7 Metaphors for Leadership Transformation