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?

The Art of Leadership



Between the ages of 12 and 18, much of my free time was spent participating in the Air Cadets program.  Some kids go to camp, some work part-time and I went to Cadets.  I met great friends, learned new skills, and received some solid leadership training.  I still recall the definition they taught us:

“Leadership is the art of influencing human behaviour in order to accomplish a mission in the manner desired by the leader.”

~Canadian Forces definition of leadership, circa 1990

While there was dubious value in memorizing this definition there are some parts of it that I like. I agree, leadership is very much an art. There is no formula for dealing with people, no recipe for getting them to do what you want.  And make no mistake,  the most important part of that definition is that leadership is all about influencing people’s behaviour.  But how do we do that? Well, that’s the million dollar question, and one I hope we’ll be exploring together here.

 I have one beef  with this definition: it seems to place more emphasis on the second half of the definition, accomplishing a mission in the manner desired by a leader than on the first part. Which makes sense, to a certain extent, if you remember that the definition came from the Canadian military. Mission, always the Mission, was a mantra that was repeated over and over again. But that’s a scary definition and implies that the ends justify the means. It also implies that the leader knows the manner in which they want the mission accomplished but that’s not always the case.  Even in the military. I would argue that part of being an effective leader is involving your team in the solution process. 

In 2005, the Canadian Forces published new leadership manuals, with the following change to the definition of leadership:

CF leadership may be formally defined as directing, motivating, and enabling others to accomplish the mission professionally and ethically, while developing or improving capabilities that contribute to mission success. Leadership in the Canadian Forces: Doctrine


Not as easy to memorize, but definitely puts the emphasis on the people side of things. Also, I love the subtle shift to enabling others to accomplish the mission.  The leader is now responsible for contributing to mission success, but doesn’t have to operate in a vacuum any more.

And to me, that’s what leadership is about. You can’t be a leader if you’re the only one involved. Leadership is about bringing people together for a purpose. Whether it’s to attack a trench, ship boxes, serve a client or change the world. But the challenge is not coming up with something to do, there are lots of great ideas out there. The hard part is getting the team to work together, past the individual issues, past the interpersonal issues, past the assumptions and the egos so that the team can do what individuals working by themselves can’t.

Which brings me to my definition of leadership:

Leadership is the courage to bring people together and the art of engaging them so that they can accomplish great things.

So why bother starting with a definition? Because I think it’s easy to get lost and wander around this rather fluffy subject and forget what we’re actually trying to do. In order to figure out how to be an effective leader, or better yet, a great leader, I think we need to be sure we’re talking about the same thing. My definition isn’t restricted to people in official, I’m-in-charge positions.  It can apply to a manager trying to get their team to ship a product on time or it can apply to parents trying to make their family unit a place where everyone can thrive. It can apply to teachers, engaging their students and it can apply to someone who wants to start fundraising for a cause that they’re passionate about.

It’s not about strategy. It’s not about winning.

For me, it’s about helping to bring the best out in people.

So what’s your definition of leadership?