The Power of Personal Metaphor

(Originally appeared in Leadership in Action, CCL/Jossey Bass: New York, Volume 21, No. 5, 2001)

One of my consulting firm’s clients, who is in the liquor industry, questions whether his new employees have the spirit. He says he taps into his subordinates during meetings. He asks them to make a case for their requests and brusquely asks them to cap it off. Another client, a senior executive of a department store chain that sells clothing, wonders whether the people on his management team fittogether. Still another client, an executive of a high-tech company that links analog-based equipment to digital machines, speaks of mixed signals among departments and wonders whether the executive team is sufficiently connected to the business.

I pay close attention to the ways my clients use language to describe their organizations and their challenges. I’m particularly intrigued by the way they use metaphors that relate to their industries. It seems that people respond powerfully to powerful language. During an intense meeting of the senior executives of a struggling agricultural company, the CEO talked about his journey as a leader and the lesson he learned to bloom where you are planted. Many attendees said it was the most memorable moment of the meeting.

Part of my job as a consultant is to help leaders examine the language they use to promote the changes they want to implement. Often their words are not aligned with their intentions. I’ve heard leaders use the word fine-tuning when they actually were engaged in full-blown restructuring. And I’ve heard them say their organizations needed a revolution when all that was needed was a tweak. Leaders want to send clear messages that don’t confuse their objectives or their constituents, so they generally appreciate my observations about language.

Only recently have I considered the power of metaphors in promoting individual development and growth. Metaphors are a powerful learning tool. By comparing what is known with what is unknown, meaningful associations are created. These associations can serve as touchstones, reminders that help people through tough times. Thus, metaphors can make difficult developmental challenges more tangible. By probing metaphors from different, unlikely angles, people can identify the points on which they become stuck and make it easier to become unstuck.


Not long ago I attended a workshop on the use of metaphors in executive coaching. The participants were paired up and asked to connect a personal interest to a professional developmental challenge. My challenge was that having been in the organizational development field for some time, I was feeling a little stale. In the past this feeling would have driven me crazy and I would have done anything I could to make a change in my life or learn something difficult. Yet this time, for some unknown reason, I wasn’t doing anything about my rut.

I then described my love of playing guitar. While I have little natural talent, possess a tin ear, and can’t read music, the guitar has been my way to relax, have fun, and pretend to be a rock star for the past twenty years. Teaching myself, I have picked up some technique over the years and can even play along with favorite albums.

Three years ago I was inspired to take lessons. My playing reached a whole new level–I learned to fingerpick, play notes and chords at the same time, and play a thumping bass line with my thumb.

Circumstances changed. My travel schedule ramped up and I stopped taking lessons. But I kept playing the eight songs I had learned, over and over. I still enjoy playing those songs, but they are getting a little boring. (Just ask my family.)

My partner in the workshop asked how my guitar playing related to my professional challenge. The more she probed, the more I saw a connection. In both cases I had reached a plateau of competence and wasn’t going further. In fact, my feeling of competence was preventing me from learning something new. I was afraid that if I stopped to learn something new I wouldn’t sound as good, either as a guitar player or as a consultant. I was stuck between the need to develop further and the fear of going off-key.

This realization helped me remember that in my career I didn’t want to start from scratch and learn a new instrument (I love my work) but I did want to work with new people, new clients, and new circumstances–and I needed to learn some new tunes.


Intrigued by these insights, I decided to adapt this process for a small management group I was working with. Their organization is a division of a major foundation that distributes grants for social policy research.

My clients’ program was considered a model by the parent organization, but they were concerned about the decrease in the number of grant applications received in the previous two years. During our first meeting the group identified external and internal trends in their field (for example, shifts in the political landscape, advances in biotechnology, and other philanthropies that had entered their field). They created future scenarios and planned strategies to revitalize the grant application process.

Two months later we reconvened to commit to specific actions to address the scenarios they created. They also wanted to come away feeling energized and even more connected to one another.

Desmond, the program director, described the meeting as an attempt to breathe new life into a “mature consumer product.” Picking up on his metaphor, the group joked about “new and improved grants” as if they were selling laundry detergent rather than providing hundreds of thousands of dollars for important research.

We met in a small, windowless room in a hotel. The room had dark paneling, medieval-looking tapestries, and wooden ceiling beams. To get the group in the mood for the metaphor exercise, I wondered aloud whether the decor resembled their challenges.

“It’s like a castle,” said Desmond.

“Or a monastery,” added Janet, the program administrator.

I asked them to pursue these metaphors further.

“We have a moat around us, making it difficult for people to reach us,” said Desmond.

Eric, the communications director, said, “You’re right, Desmond. We need to let down the drawbridge.”

“I hate to say it,” Desmond chuckled glumly, “but sometimes we make decisions without consulting our subjects.” With that as a backdrop, we began the metaphor exercise.

Janet began by describing her souring relationship with her father. At 75, he was becoming increasingly dependent on his children but also increasingly judgmental of them. Janet was becoming aggravated by his critical comments and had begun avoiding him.

Janet then talked about her pets. She had a menagerie of dogs, cats, birds, and even snakes. At first Janet didn’t see how her love of pets could be connected to her relationship with her father. She offered, “You have to treat animals with unconditional love.”

Eric said, “But pets need to learn where to poop.”

Janet remembered that she sometimes had to discipline her pets, especially the young ones, so they would behave appropriately. “I won’t put up with some things from those animals,” she said firmly.

A flash of recognition furrowed her brow. She saw how her tension related to her fear that her father would reject her if she asserted her needs. Paradoxically, she recognized that to have a good relationship with her father she needed to be able to assert her needs to him. If she didn’t, she would pull away from him.

Janet appreciated the metaphor connection. She said that while she didn’t want to treat her father like a dog, she did need to find a way to assert her needs in their relationship.


Amid nervous laughter, Desmond said he hadn’t anticipated a psychotherapy session during the meeting. Then he plunged into the exercise.

Desmond said his developmental struggle was balancing work with his other commitments, including his family and his role as a community leader. He spoke of how hard it was to say no to people when they asked him to participate in something; he couldn’t stand the idea of missing out on a new experience, particularly if it would make him feel he was helping others. Desmond has an enormous capacity for and love of involvement, but he was feeling overwhelmed and conflicted.

“I just love to play,” he blurted, as if the world was a playground and he didn’t want to miss anything. Focusing on that imagery, he identified a seesaw as a metaphor for how he lived, constantly trying to find equilibrium between his work life and his personal life.

Janet probed this image further. “To me, the fun of a seesaw is not balancing the two sides but the movement–the push up and then the whoosh down. Perhaps you love the seesaw not so much for the balance as for the constant motion.”

Desmond nodded. “It’s true; it’s like I’m in a ship on the ocean, on giant swells, up and down.”

Eric laughed and said, “Its funny how the choices you make always add to your commitments, even with your metaphors. Rather than simply pursue the seesaw metaphor, you added the ship as another metaphor. No wonder you’re confused.”

Desmond was struck–and a little embarrassed–by the connection. He said he had never been able to accept limits on his capacity because his thirst for living and helping others was so great. This had never been a problem for him until recently, when he started missing deadlines because he was overextended.

Janet said, “Perhaps the two ends of your seesaw aren’t about balancing work with other commitments. Perhaps they’re about going back and forth between accepting and rejecting your limitations.”

Desmond thought for a moment and said, “I’ll never fully accept limitations on my capacity. But I do need to see the consequences on my family and on you guys when I let my commitments get the better of me.”


After a brief silence Eric shuffled in his seat and said, “Well, I guess I’m next.

“My whole career I’ve taken the path of least resistance. Writing came easily to me but I never became a ‘writer.’ Instead I went the corporate route, first in public relations, then speech writing, and now this.

“I feel like if I don’t start something new soon I won’t ever take ‘the road less traveled.’ The funny thing is, I’ve been having these thoughts mostly when I’m hiking.

“Hiking constantly gives you options,” said Eric, a passionate hiker. “You can always depart from the path and try something new. But in my career I’ve chosen to stay on this path, in the world of certainty, rather than try the path of maybe.”

“Tell us why you love hiking so much,” said Desmond.

Eric said, “It’s the freedom, the physical challenge, nature. It’s everything I love.”

“So why don’t you write about it?” asked Janet.

Eric looked stunned. He had never connected his interest in hiking with his talent for writing. This was more than metaphor; it was career counseling.

“That is something to really think about,” Eric said quietly.

Desmond said, “Whoa guys, this metaphor connection stuff is fine, but without us there is no program.”

Janet replied, “Maybe there shouldn’t be a program. One scenario we didn’t consider was closing down the project. Why create an artificial need for more letters of interest? If we’ve done everything we can to support the research, perhaps we need to rethink our mission. I’m not saying we should give up, but let’s not continue to spend the philanthropy’s money until we are absolutely clear about our motives.”


“If you think about it,” I interjected, “each of you talked about a personal turning point. Janet is at the cusp of asserting herself to her father. Desmond is questioning how many commitments he can manage. And Eric is thinking of taking a less safe career path.

“It seems to me that similar turning points exist for your program. It would be safe to continue to run the program as you have for the past five years, but your contributions to the field might be at a plateau. Also, I know you don’t want to disappoint the foundation, but I wonder if this isn’t at the expense of your own needs and the needs of the program. If you don’t assert your convictions about your mission, it will be difficult to get the support you require. Finally, it’s interesting that you created so many scenarios about the future without seriously considering the limitations on your time and resources.

“Perhaps you need to have a different conversation in which you aren’t reacting to potential scenarios or trying to find better ways to market your grant process but instead are developing a point of view for the future of the program, even if it means a recommendation to pull the plug.”

Eric said, “So what you’re saying is that it’s safer to find a way to bump up the number of letters of intent we receive than it is to examine whether the philanthropy’s money could be better spent through other programs.”

“This is interesting,” said Desmond. “But I don’t think it’s wise to recommend closing down the program unless we know it’s the right thing to do. Yet I also don’t want to assume that we know what the right thing is at this point. Rather than identifying how to create a `new and improved’ product as if we were marketers, perhaps we should frame this effort within our own expertise, as a research project that provides options to the foundation about how its money can be spent.”

Janet said, “But we should assert the recommendations about what we think is best.”

As the group took a break, Desmond steered me into the hallway and said quietly: “That was awesome. What we talked about has the potential to be much more valuable to the philanthropy. We could be in service in a way I never anticipated.”

Seeing the excitement in his eyes, I knew he was back on the seesaw again. And I realized that the metaphor exercise could apply not only to individual professional challenges but to organizational challenges, as well.