One of the most powerful and underused tools in leadership

When I was five, my dad taught me about planets using an orange and a plum. We were having breakfast and he crouched down beside me, held out an orange in one hand and a plum in the other, slowly rotating his hand to illustrate how the Earth revolved around the sun. As he spoke, he looked intently at me and then in turn, the fruit in his hand. “If the plum is the Earth and the sun is the orange, what is the air around it?”, he asked.

I watched the orange and plum intently. I was an all-powerful deity moving the planets with my sheer concentration. 

Using fruit as a visual metaphor to represent our solar system was so powerful that, to this day, whenever I read about planets, I think of oranges and plums and the memory of my dad teaching me about my world. 

Metaphor is an underused tool in leadership. Metaphor can make the complex, simple. It can compellingly connect our hearts and minds to a vision. It can unlock powerful questions and thinking, while creating a different level of conversation. It can re-frame something, so that we gain shared meaning. And it can even provide comfort and deeper meaning in challenging times, when emotions are big and overwhelming.

This simple technique, of using a word or phrase that is symbolic of something else, comes from the Greek word, ‘metapherein’ which means ‘to transfer, or carry over’. It’s when we say a thing is something else. And it’s a powerful method for transferring meaning from one thing to create awareness or understanding in another context. 

The use of metaphor is something that indigenous cultures all over the world use exceptionally well – and it’s something you should also consider using more in your leadership practice. 

Here are 5 occasions which are perfect for weaving metaphor into your leadership conversations:

  1. When communicating a vision for your team or organisation. Extra sauce: Tap into your team or organisation’s identity story, as Owen Eastwood so expertly shows us in his book, Belonging.
  2. When navigating tough times or challenging external market conditions.
  3. When communicating the need for, and leading people through, change.
  4. In a coaching conversation. Metaphor is awesome for anchoring a key learning moment. 
  5. When trying to explain a difficult or complex process and make it simpler to understand. 

Here are four ways to get you started on using metaphor: 

  1. Start by thinking imaginatively about the thing you want to describe. What is it like? What are its characteristics? How does it make you feel? Does it have a sound or a smell, and if it does, what is it? Finish this sentence multiple times: “It’s like a….”. 

Nature, ancestral wisdom or mythology, journeys, sports teams, athletes or famous inspirational characters, cars, movie characters – even food like my dad tapped into – can be great fodder for metaphors. Let your right brain run riot. 

You could even ask a few people: “If this was a metaphor, what is this like? What springs to mind?” Build on others’ answers. Free associate and avoid clichés. Sometimes the best metaphors I’ve come across have seemed obscure at first.

  1. Once you have decided on a metaphor, create questions for yourself and as conversation starters for your team members to build on the metaphor. 

If the next year facing your team is like climbing the top peak of a mountain, where you’ll need to overcome the biting cold and face treacherous adversity like falling rocks, what might the cold represent? What would some of our falling rocks be? What would reaching the top of the mountain represent? What would that mean to us and our stakeholders? What muscles and skills would we need to develop to be able to successfully reach the summit? What would we need to be cautious against and what do those mini metaphors represent? What would all of us reaching the top look like and feel like? 

  1. A picture is worth a thousand words. Use visual representation and drawings wherever possible when using metaphor with your team. Even if it’s a whiteboard or flipchart to draw a thing, it can be great for opening up creativity, helping people see differently, and communicating an idea. Todd Cherches’ book VisuaLeadership is a good place to turn to for guidance around how to use visual thinking and visual communication in leadership.
  1. After using that metaphor initially, don’t stop with one conversation. Return to the metaphor again in subsequent conversations and communications. Ask powerful questions that relate to the initial metaphor and communicate the key messages you’re trying to get across. 

My dad was the master of the metaphor. I don’t think I will ever see a picture of the earth and moon and not see a plum and an orange flash before my eyes. Be like my dad. Leave lasting pictures in people’s minds, share ideas more effectively, and connect with your team through the power of metaphor. You might find it’s rocket fuel for your leadership!

4 Comments

  1. Evelyn O'neill on August 19, 2021 at 3:39 pm

    a good reminder Suzi – thanks

  2. Marta Simeonova on August 9, 2021 at 4:35 am

    This is a great reminder and very useful advice. I often forget about the power of stories and metaphors. Since I manage a global multi-cultural team, it is sometimes also a challenge to find a metaphor that is relevant for everyone and speaks to people from different cultures.

    • Suzi McAlpine on August 9, 2021 at 9:35 am

      Yes Marta, it can be a challenge to find a metaphor that resonates for all. I find nature is always something we can all relate to. The book Belonging, by Owen Eastwood might also be a useful reference to hep you out here. Thanks for your comments 🙂 Suzi

  3. Chris on August 4, 2021 at 8:18 pm

    Outstanding! Thank you.

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Suzi McAlpine

Suzi McAlpine is a Leadership Development Specialist and author of the award-winning leadership blog, The Leader’s Digest. She writes and teaches about accomplished leadership, what magic emerges when it’s present, and how to ignite better leadership in individuals, teams and organisations. Suzi has been a leader and senior executive herself, working alongside CEOs and executive teams in a variety of roles. Her experience has included being a head-hunter, an executive coach, and a practice leader for a division at the world’s largest HR consulting firm. Suzi provides a range of services as a Leadership Development Specialist, including executive coaching, leadership workshops and development programmes for CEOs, leadership teams and organisations throughout New Zealand.

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