Mixing my leadership metaphors

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June 19th, 2015

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shutterstock_287108096There is no shortage of competency frameworks and theory that seek to describe what effective leadership is all about. Indeed the Centre for Leadership Studies at University of Exeter published a review in 2003 of 24 competency frameworks across the public and private sectors and seven schools of leadership theory and still found them wanting.

While such frameworks and theory have value, not least in promoting a dialogue about what leadership (and I would add ‘followship’) really mean in an organisation, they are by their nature incomplete. Firstly, they cannot describe every facet of effective leadership. Nor do they deal with issues of personal congruence and authenticity. Secondly, they neglect for me that leadership is situational and relational. By that I mean different types of leadership may be needed or may emerge in different environments. And that leadership is in itself a notion that people construct with each other. Put simply, if I say you are a leader and follow you, then to a certain extent you are – we construct the notion of leadership and followship between us.

Describing in detail a long list of behaviours to which the perfect leader can aspire is also a bit debilitating. As humans we are perfectly imperfect with differing gifts and dark sides. We cannot be all things to all people and, if we try to be so, I reckon we end up less effective and exceptionally knackered (tired). So whilst I am all for recognising and accepting weaknesses as a leader and having strategies to get around these, I think people lead better when they focus on their leadership strengths and build on them.

So where does this leave us? This is where I turn to metaphor. The great thing about metaphors is that they help people find both shared and individual meaning around key concepts. Helping people find meaning through story telling is in fact increasingly seen as a core component of effective leadership. A good story is probably more memorable than a thousand compelling visions. Despite this, story telling does not yet feature explicitly in many competence frameworks!

So let’s demonstrate what I mean by looking at two of my favourite metaphors in relationship to leadership and mixing them up. The first relates to the difference between leadership and management, the subject of much inconclusive debate and many long lists. I like to quote Stephen Covey here from the Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. Here he writes

Managers are often so busy cutting through the undergrowth they don’t even realise they are in the wrong jungle. A leader is a person who climbs the tallest tree, surveys the entire situation, and yells, ‘wrong jungle!.

My second favourite metaphor is around the notion of white water leadership. This was described by White, Hodgson and Crainer in their book : The Future of Leadership – a White Water Revolution. They suggested that

 instead of slow moving flows, leaders find themselves hurtling down rapids. White Water Leadership is the new corporate necessity…to learn to move towards uncertainty rather than away from it.

So if you will allow me to mix these two metaphors, the meaning I take from them is transformational leadership is all about getting through the jungle (or was it the white water). Metaphorically at least, this provides meaning for me about some leadership strategies that are more likely to work than not in these types of environment. So here are my strategies –

  • Accept the jungle path/rapids may bring you out at another spot:
    Interpretation – you can plan as much as you like but in an uncertain world the truth is you cannot predict where you will end up. That does not mean you should not plan nor start the journey.
  • Communicate like mad so you all stay together:
    Interpretation – interconnectivity and shared meaning is all important in a complex world. The more I work in my field, the more I realise that good, frequent and proper communication and dialogue is key.
  • Allow people to wander but stay connectedpeople straying from the path/fork may find a quicker way: Interpretation – in an uncertain world you need to adapt quickly to changing conditions. Creativity and innovation will come from people breaking some rules and doing something different from their core activity. The leader needs to create the space for this wandering but maintain a connection so the wanderer returns with their newfound knowledge.
  • Make sure everyone can use a machete/paddle/life jacket (pass it on!):
    Interpretation – A key role of the leader is to develop others and create an environment where skills and knowledge are shared
  • Climb a few trees/cliffs to make sure you’re in the right jungle/river/continent:
    Interpretation – You need to have an external focus as a leader. Get out and scan the environment to make sure you are on the right path, that you know what is happening in the world and market.
  • Don’t wait for the tribal elders/river guide: it’s a new jungle/river to them too:
    Interpretation – Too often followers place an unreasonable faith and burden on senior leaders to know what is the right thing to do and where they are headed even when most things are uncertain. They therefore wait for a steer or compelling vision from above leaving a leadership vacuum for those around them. So I say, if no-one else is making sense of what is happening, it is your leadership responsibility to let people know what your best guess is.
  • Don’t be fooled by the clearing/calm: there’s another jungle/rapid round the corner:
    Interpretation – too often people look for a period of stability after a period of rapid change. My experience suggests these times, if they ever existed, have gone. To tell people that there may be a period of slow down can therefore be disingenuous. Far better to accept the inevitability of change and think of the resources that will get you through it.

These are my meanings. What are yours?