Byron's Babbles

Leading By Metaphor

IMG_5843I use metaphors all the time. Sometimes I wonder if I use them too much, but this week while reading the very instructive book The Art Of Innovation by Tom Kelley I was reminded that we need to lead and innovate by metaphor. He said, “We should lead by metaphors.” Metaphors are a powerful tool. A metaphor can give us a powerful and clear image of who we want to be, what we want to learn, how we want to learn, and how we want to grow. Our metaphors serve as examples of how we want to contribute to the world.

indexMetaphors also serve as reminders of what we do not want to be. I am reminded of the toy lawnmower on my desk that serves as a constant reminder of how when innovating, reforming, or leading change many let protecting their own, or their organization’s, turf get in the way. I literally say things like, “Time to get the lawnmowers out.” or we are going to need a really big lawnmower for this group.” In fact I blogged about this in The Frustrating Truth of Turf. Another metaphor I use a lot is that of going up a hill with bullets flying and turning around and everyone else is headed down the hill. Then my metaphor of just putting on the Kevlar™ and doing what is right comes into play.

If you haven’t noticed I really do talk in metaphores. So, to me you do not just need to pick one, you can pick multiple metaphors for whatever the situation. As a believer in adaptive leadership, these metaphors serve an important purpose. They, as I stated earlier, serve as powerful reminders and serve as great ways to tell a story. People you are working or collaborating with can relate to the metaphor. It makes the issue or topic relevant, and as you know, I am all about putting all learning into a relevant context. For example, when it comes to policy I use the metaphor of Patrick Henry a lot. As one of our founding fathers he stands as a lasting image of America’s struggle for liberty. He inserted himself as a leader in every protest and move against British tyranny and in the movement for colonial rights. Most of all, though, he believed in states rights, local autonomy, and very limited government.

As a believer in intent based leadership Patrick Henry serves as an important reminder that decisions should be made as close to where the data is created – local control. You can compare this to classroom teachers in a school or governments. How do we remove obstacles and let what needs to be done, done? Which then always brings a metaphor of that people use to describe my desires, “What you want would create the wild west.” Guilty as charged! But think about how much innovation and change was happening in the wild west.

Another metaphor I have used before is that of Abraham Lincoln bringing the nation back together. In fact I use that so much that friends photo-shopped a picture that I have included in this post. It serves as an important reminder to me of how important it is to bring everyone together for a common cause and respect everyone, just as Abraham Lincoln did following the Civil War by showing respect for the confederate south. I need this metaphorical example because this unification is not always easy and I am not always the best at it. We all have a tendency to go tribal.

Kelley told us in The Art Of Innovation we should choose a metaphor for every project or everything we do. Again, they serve as such powerful reminders for us. Just like the airplane wing hanging in one of the office areas of IDEO. What metaphors do you use?

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  1. […] The exhibits in the museum are awesome and I had the chance to explore the entire ship. I was especially inspired in the wheel house, or bridge, as I looked out the port hole windows and thought about the decisions leaders had to make on this very deck. Then when I went above to the outdoor wheelhouse deck I studied the Engine Order Telegraph (the featured picture of this post). I immediately realized I had found another great metaphor that I believe represents the ways many organizations, leaders, associations, and governments work. Earlier last week I blogged about metaphors in Leading By Metaphor. […]

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