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Posted: October 03, 2012

What’s your leadership metaphor?

They can teach valuable lessons

Many metaphors exist to help better define the opaque elements of leadership.  Leadership metaphors are often parables that narrate, illustrate and teach a lesson.  Like all good metaphors, we learn and understand leadership better when we say that good leadership is like coaching, piloting and serving. Great leadership is often a lesson in empathy, compassion and serving others and the organizations we work in. 

Coach Leaders: Guidance from the Sidelines

One of the most common leadership metaphors is that of leader as coach. Think John Wooden or Hoosiers -- you get the idea. Good leaders do what successful coaches do by developing teams that accomplish extraordinary things by recognizing and promoting talent.  Coaches don’t "do;" they are often on the sidelines while their players execute strategy. 

The sideline metaphor is a powerful leadership lesson. Standing on the sideline implies relinquishing control and being self-aware enough to know that others, not just you, can handle tasks. In this leadership lesson, the leader is tied more to the employee’s success and the organization’s goals than their own.  Ask yourself: When was the last time you sidelined yourself? Do you have employees who could win with your encouragement rather than by your taking over?  Do you believe that your employees are winners?

Pilot Leaders: Mapping the Journey

Another common metaphor for leadership is that of pilot.  Pilots are conscious of all the conditions that might impact the trip.  Pilot leaders are those who help map the journey.  They are the leaders who ask the questions about where we are going, how will we get there, and how will we know when we are there.  These leaders see piloting as a chance to engage employees in problem solving when the path forward is complicated and riddled with issues as well as communicating every step of the journey. 

Pilot leaders tend to be hardy.  As leaders they remain hopeful even when conditions might be frightening.  These last few years, good leaders have had to be hardy, believing that positive outcomes were possible even when the economic climate was not hopeful.    How do you pilot your employees?  Do you guide their journeys by understanding what route they are taking?  Do you look past the conditions and believe that by guiding the organization, you and your employees will make the trip together and successfully? 

Servant Leaders: Focusing on People

A relatively new leadership metaphor is leader as servant.  Servant leaders achieve results for their organizations by giving priority attention to the needs of their colleagues and those they serve. Servant-leaders are often seen as humble stewards of the organization.  Rather than lead from their position, servant leaders search for ways to help employees solve problems by offering to guidance and support in any way that creates resolution. 

Servant leaders, out of their belief that their staff is the genesis of the organizational greatness, identify ways for employees to develop new skills and talents.  These leaders place their main focus on their people, because only motivated people are able to reach their targets and to fulfill objectives. Like the coach and pilot, servant leaders are listeners, empathic, motivators, and problem solvers.  As problem solvers, servant leaders are healers.   They look for the pain in the organization and try enabling employees to fix what is wrong.  As a leader, do you heal pain or cause it?  Are you comfortable with following some of the time and leading other times? 

If leadership is replete with metaphors, it is partly to help explain what is so hard to do: be a great leader.  Each of these metaphors have common themes.  The skills of listening, communicating, emotional intelligence and compassion are the skills that help leaders thrive.  Think about your leadership skills and define your style with your own metaphor.  It may explain a lot. 

Enjoy this article? Sign up to get ColoradoBiz Exclusives. The opinions expressed in this article are solely that of the author and do not represent ColoradoBiz magazine. Comments on articles will be removed if they include personal attacks.

Readers Respond

Lovely article Deborah and a great reminder of the "softer" skills required to be a great leader. Wonderful to read your advice on ColoradoBiz. I look forward to more of your articles. By Kaye Sullivan on 2012 10 03
A great article. Precise and insightful. There comes a time in everybody's career when one has to transition from manager to leader. And, there are very few born leaders. The skills of listening, communicating and compassion can be learnt, albeit slowly and with coaching. Thanks for the article. By Lalit Mehra on 2012 10 03
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