The Power of Metaphors

It is important for leaders to be students of metaphors, especially their own metaphors. Metaphor is a powerful tool in a leader’s arsenal. Effective leaders are good communicators. They are competent storytellers, able to use the appropriate metaphor(s) in any given leadership situation.

Appropriate metaphors help to enhance the delivery and reception of a leader’s key messages. A powerful vision communicated without the appropriate metaphor(s) will suffer a quick death because there will be no buy-in from people.

A metaphor is a figure of speech that enables you to take something that is familiar to you and use it as a pictograph or image of what you are trying to describe (Sahtouris, 1996). Metaphors help make the abstract concepts concrete for a target audience. They are great vehicles for leaders to convey ideas and instructions.  George Orwell argued that “the sole aim of a metaphor is to call up a visual image’.

Metaphors are not simply fancy ingredients to spice up language. They are powerful enough to influence our attitudes, beliefs and behaviours. This is because metaphors govern the way we view our world. Lakoff and Johnson said in their seminal book, ‘Metaphors we live by’ that “because we reason in terms of metaphor, the metaphors we use determine a great deal about how we live our lives”. They also argue that metaphors are our principal vehicles for understanding the world and they play a central role in the construction of reality. Metaphors are ingrained in all our daily interactions but they are so subtle that unless you look out for them, you rarely notice them. You could say they are part and parcel our everyday language. Even God used metaphors in the Bible.

God sent a reluctant Moses to deliver the Israelites from the Egyptian oppression. The Israelites (about six hundred thousand men, besides women and children) had spent hundreds of years in Egypt as slaves. Moses was supposed to lead them to Canaan – the Promised Land. The only snag was that Moses had never been to Canaan before.  Yet he was expected to lead people on a journey through the wilderness to a place where he had never been to. God gave an appropriate metaphor to inspire and motivate both Moses and the people. God called Canaan, a land flowing with milk and honey. This short but powerful metaphor conjures the image of a pleasant and fruitful land. It described a land much better than Egypt, which was a superpower and prosperous nation at the time.

God knew both Moses and the people needed a visual imagery or a mental picture of the land which they were risking it all for. They were leaving the known for the unknown. The metaphor of a land flowing with milk and honey was also meant to stir their imagination and passion for Canaan. Wouldn’t you want to go to live in a land flowing with milk and honey? The Israelites witnessed mighty miracles on their way out of Egypt but they also had a powerful metaphor to inspire them as well.

2 replies on “The Power of Metaphors”

I definitely appreciate and enjoy using metaphors. They make the delivery of hard and painful truths a little less brutal. At the same time they enable ‘outside the box’ deliveries. Sometimes, though, I feel like we sometimes hide behind metaphors…anywhere the wind blows, huh?
Ya, metaphors are definitely powerful and yet so misunderstood and abused. You’re right, they are inspiring as well, as they help to stretch one’s imagination.

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