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August 7, 2008 Vol. 1, Issue 7


Metaphors are one of the simplest and most effective ways for a leader to communicate with a group.

A truly effective leader has to be a motivating communicator. This goes beyond speaking clearly or compellingly to the words he or she chooses. The right metaphor can serve as the perfect device to connect an audience with a new idea.

Metaphors help us understand abstract or complex issues, which is critical when leaders are introducing new ideas or desired actions to a group. “Metaphors often build a bridge from the known to the unknown, from the familiar to the unfamiliar,” write Thomas Oberlechner, a psychologist, and Viktor Mayer-Schonberger, a professor of public policy specializing in information policy.

In “Through Their Own Words: Towards a New Understanding of Leadership Through Metaphors” (PDF), Oberlechner and Mayer-Schonberger note that the choice of metaphor offers insight into the relationship between leader and group. In general, leadership metaphors fall into distinct categories: war metaphors, sports metaphors, and religious or spiritual metaphors. War metaphors, featuring such language as “doing battle” or “revolutionize,” can be highly effective in a hierarchical situation, where the group is comfortable with receiving suggestions about how to act or react. Sports metaphors, which present business or life as a game and emphasize the importance of teamwork, have appeal in a less hierarchical setting. Spiritual metaphors may incorporate fables or fairytales to communicate a concept, while religious metaphors — such as “spreading hope” — can inspire listeners to take action. In every case, the choice of metaphor reveals the dynamics between leader and group.

Leaders can also use metaphors to define their leadership style. By using war metaphors, a leader represents the figure of a commanding officer, to be followed without question. Sports metaphors work well for the leader whose style is to be part of the overall team. When metaphors are appropriately selected for a particular audience, listeners perceive the leader to be “speaking our language” or “one of us.” The most effective leaders have a rich metaphorical vocabulary and a finely tuned sense of how to use metaphors to teach, motivate, or inspire those they seek to lead.

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