Startup HR: What is Your Metaphor for Leadership?

What image best describes how you see your role as a leader?

Perhaps as a gardener who creates fertile ground for growth? Or maybe as a cyborg who is expected to be faster, stronger, more invulnerable than others? Hopefully not as clown or saint or bully, although without asking ourselves what our model of leadership is based on, we may behave in ways that we don’t even see. If I see my role as that of planting seeds and helping nurture growth, I’m going to handle a request for direction from my people differently than if I see myself as a mechanical half-human creation who must be perfect.

We use figures of speech and symbols to represent ideas in every aspect of our lives, often without being consciously aware of what they are. First we need to become aware of what image we have in our heads about what it means to “be a leader” so that we can work with it effectively – or change it if it is an image we don’t want. Being intentional about what image best represents you as a leader can be a powerful tool to align your actions with what you believe most.

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These mental images exist in terms of how we see ourselves, but they also exist in terms of how we see our organizations. The most prevalent one is still the industrial revolution-based concept of the organization as machine. Ever feel like a “cog in the wheel?”  Or use phrases like “top-down” or “bottom-up”? This is the machine metaphor at work.

This metaphor comes from the turn of the 20th century, and yet a variation of it is still what we use in far too many organizations well more than a hundred years later. One of the fundamental beliefs of this model is that workers are unable to understand what they are doing and that we must separate those who think about work from those who do the work. Managers are responsible to design and organize the work in the most efficient way possible, and to monitor worker performance. Sound familiar?

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And yet, are we not more than mechanistic parts of a giant machine? Do we want to build organizations that see complex human beings as nothing more than parts of a giant set of levers and wheels that can be optimized? Being open to seeing the full complexity and messiness of managing people without trying to fit them into a simplistic machine metaphor is harder than adjusting cogs to optimize efficiency, but it is also where the real power lies.

Have you ever considered how you see the parts of your organization, to unearth the metaphor you may be acting on without even realizing it? It may be helping you or it may be hurting you (or more likely a combination of the two), but without conscious awareness of the models we hold in our minds, we are powerless to use them thoughtfully or reject them when they no longer serve us and the people we lead.

Photo: Alan Cressler