The Problems (and Benefits) of Metaphors


The world is a chaotic and messy place and it’s worthwhile giving yourself some credit for how you’ve managed to sort it out so far. We’ve all done a pretty good job since most of us manage to function in society at large. One of things we’ve used to help us classify and understand the world is metaphors. Metaphors helps us take things we may not fully understand, but by comparing them to things we do understand, we can sort the unknown into useful categories and get on with our lives.

So what’s the problem?

It’s no secret that how we think about things influences what we do . Tony Robbins examines the stories we tell ourselves and whether they empower or disempower us.  This TED blog talks about  five  examples of how language can affect the way we think and here’s a journal article that shows how theories can become self-fulfilling prophecies.

Bringing this back to leadership, I want to focus on the fact that many of us use the word “art” when describing leadership. I did in my first blog post because that’s how the Canadian Forces defined it back in the 90’s and that’s the way it has become ingrained in my head.

I want to look at this metaphor more closely and see if it’s really the metaphor I want to keep using.

Art is performed by artists–special people with skills most of us don’t have. Artists usually have to sacrifice everything and a fair number aren’t even recognized as great until they’re dead. That’s a rather depressing way to look at leadership. And to be realistic, we need leaders out there in the field and in industry doing things, not just looking pretty on a wall in some art gallery.

Also, an artist is selfish in the sense that they have a sentiment or feeling that they want to express and they want to express it a certain way. If people don’t understand the artist’s work, the artist usually doesn’t make any apologies and try to recreate the art a different way. The work of art is what it is.

Some leaders are like that. Steve Jobs made no apologies about what he envisioned and he drove Apple with his sheer force of will.  However, other leaders have tried the same strategy and failed miserably.

Like any skill, whether it’s painting, solving algebraic equations, or leadership, the more we practice, the better we get. If there’s one thing I like about the “art” metaphor is that art is about expressing or applying creative skill. There’s no doubt that creativity is useful, but I would like to argue that it’s a characteristic of creativity that’s actually one of the most valuable traits for a leader to have.

Flexibility. The ability to change in response to circumstances.

In this case, I think calling leadership an art is valuable. After all, science is not usually known for its flexible approaches to problem solving. Newton’s laws haven’t changed over time. But, not all science is linear. As my background is in science, the idea of looking at non-linear sciences as a metaphor for leadership intrigues me. But that’s a future post.

So what other metaphors can we use to describe leadership? Me and another instructor once asked a group of leaders this same question. We made them wander around the classroom and asked them to look at what leadership lessons they could learn. One group looked at the corner where four tiles met on the floor. They said that being a leader was like that corner, with all the lines going toward that point. Sometimes the edges between the tiles got dirty, but the corner still had a job to do.

Another metaphor I’ve used:

Leadership is like driving a car.

1. You need a destination (goal that you’re trying to accomplish) otherwise what’s the point?

2. You need to figure out the best route (technical problem solving).

3. You need to supply gas and steering to your car (team) in order to get to the destination.

Anyone who has ever been on a road trip knows that the travel is the toughest part. People suffer from travel fatigue (are we there yet?!). Cars break down. Maps aren’t always accurate.

In the end, some drivers will give up and go home. Some will ask for directions from the locals. Some will make necessary repairs en route while others push on with a rattling under the hood. I like to think most of us will get to our destination. The real question is whether or not we’re going to have a car left for the next trip when this one is over or whether we’ll have to thumb a ride home from the side of the road.

The great thing is we don’t always have to use the same metaphor. Sometimes we may want to be the artist, sometimes the driver, sometimes the chalk sitting on the edge of the chalkboard, waiting to be picked up. We can switch metaphors and the stories that define us, anytime we want, anytime we’re stuck, or anytime we just want to try something new.

So what’s your metaphor for leadership?