The other day I took a session on Redcliffe’s MA in Global Leadership in Intercultural Contexts. We were thinking through the nature of metaphors and how they describe and shape the identities and actions of leaders.

Although they contain many good observations I expressed a few reservations about the way I’ve often heard character studies used as models for leadership. To what extent do they account for the ancient contexts in which the leader operated? Are we supposed to immitate everything they did (no!); if not, what criteria do we use to decide what is worth copying and what isn’t? In what sense, then, is their life a normative model?

So, is there a different angle we can take? One option is metaphor. I’ve blogged before on the power of metaphor in mission. It seems to me that a number of lessons could be learned in the context of leadership as well.

The title of the lecture was ‘Metaphors We Lead By’, a play on the title of Lakoff and Johnson’s foundational book, Metaphors We Live By (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003, originally published in 1980).

A few points to make:

1. Metaphors can never account for every aspect of the thing they are describing (saying that my wife is ‘a rose’ emphasises her beauty but doesn’t account, for example, for her sense of humour or her intelligence);
2. We use metaphors much more frequently than we realise;
3. Metaphors have the power to shape how we act as well as how we talk about things.

For me, the shocking thing when I realised these things was not that I am objective and can decide in a detached way which metaphor or model I might adopt; the reality is that I am already operating under the influence of metaphors that are such a part of my conceptual make-up, I may not even be able to say what they are!

As a leader, your choice of metaphor (though nb. it may not be a conscious choice) might be ‘father’, ‘general’, ‘servant’, ‘gardener’, ‘captain’, etc. Each one emphasises different attributes and will influence how we relate to those we are leading in different ways. So we cannot rely on just one metaphor, but several or many.

Rob Hay, Redcliffe’s Principal and course leader for the Leadership MA passed on this article which was helpful:
K.W. Parry’s article, ‘The thing about metaphors and leadership’, Business papers (2008), pp.6-23.

So, which metaphor(s) do you lead by and how does it affect how you lead and your relationships with those you lead?

One thought on “Metaphors We Lead By

  1. (From research in religious discourse at the coal-face.) ‘Servant leadership’ has become fashionable as a buzz phrase. Obviously a fine concept where it’s actually played out — and one does indeed come across examples. ‘Pastor’ too, of course, but then these days one may also see eg ‘Executive Pastor’…. Postmodernist hybridity?

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