Mats Alvesson and André Spicer, Metaphors We Lead By: Understanding Leadership in the Real World.

Leadership Emerging / August 2012

Don Benson

Metaphors We Live By coverMats Alvesson and Andre Spicer (2011). Metaphors We Lead By: Understanding Leadership in the Real World. New York: Routledge.

Don Benson

Don Benson

My friend cares a lot about leadership. And therefore so do I. The trouble is that there seems to be more written about leadership than I can make sense of. The deconstruction of leadership with over 104,000 entries that come up on the Amazon search bar and 502,000,000 results from Google set me struggling with the idea and looking for ways to bring it back together.

Consequently, a book that offers the possibility of making sense of leadership intrigued me. The authors start by asserting that Western culture leads us to believe that “whatever the problem, leadership has become the solution”. They go on to notice the “positivist aspirations… a profusion of abstract categories… a thin context-insensitive understanding, and a naïve belief in the objectivity and measurability of a profoundly subjective, local and vague subject of leadership”.

Understanding leadership as they present it is not another deconstruction but rather a connection with metaphoric lenses that can be used by

  1. Leaders to organize their intention and behavior toward particular types of outcomes;
  2. Followers to make sense of or attempt to understand what leaders are doing; and most importantly,
  3. Both leaders and followers to see leadership behavior in relationship to the context.

I connected this book with A Pattern Language by Christopher Alexander and Images of Organizations by Gareth Morgan, because patterns and metaphors are imbedded in our language, culture, and cognitive structures. We use them every day to make sense of the world around us, not always conscious of the ways we do this.

The core of the book explores five metaphors for leadership that stimulated my thinking, sometimes enough to go back and re-read parts (I seldom do this). The metaphors they have selected leaders as saints, as gardeners, as buddies, as commanders, and as cyborgs. The authors expand on each and present them in ways that challenge us to think about our choices, while using language that communicated more effectively to me than much of what I have read and reflected upon as I have taken on leadership roles, or attempted to make sense of intention and behavior of leader’s as I attempted to follow their direction. The editors and chapter authors all are professors from a variety of European, American and Australian universities,

Mats Alvesson and Andre Spicer the editors, Professors at Lund University, Sweden, present two dimensions I had not seen before and that connected strongly with me:

  • Recognizing the importance of the relationship of a leadership metaphor with context; and
  • Exploring the dark side of each metaphor.

The first is that the needs of organizations change over time and the awareness of and ability to change leadership metaphors, introducing new intention and behavior to a context, can be valuable to those who choose people to fill leadership roles, to chosen people, to followers, coaches, teachers, etc. I particularly appreciated the reference to Jack Welch, who while leading GE saw the needs of the company change over time and changed metaphors in his letters to shareholders.

And, the other side of context is to connect metaphors to the environments in which they developed. Andre Spicer presented the chapter Leaders as commanders: leadership through creating clear direction. Commander behavior developed in highly structured, hierarchical environments. Commanders can present themselves as The Leader of the Charge, The Ass-Kicker, The Antagonize, The Rule Breaker, etc.  Bringing Commander behavior into an open business organization can easily find support (in rules based accounting or engineering departments) and be rejected in relative based individual sales departments.

The second dimension is the dark side of metaphors, reminds us of the risk of pushing a metaphor to far. The trap is to portray a leader as a sacred character and not understand how “saints can become cult leaders” or buddies can become ineffectual by focusing on making people feel good, rather than getting the work done. It is simplistic not to recognize that “leaders are not simply all good or all bad”.

Metaphors We Lead By helped me think more deeply about leadership and helped me look more critically at the objective research on leadership. Metaphors provide more of a lens for me now and I appreciate what they help me see as I pay attention to leadership.

About the Author

Don Benson, P.E., has worked as a consultant, manager, coach, and university instructor for over 35 years.  His practice is to collaborate with management and staff connecting vision, education, and business requirements in the building of operations capabilities and creating economic value in warehousing and distribution operations.

Don can be reached at or at 1-503-296-7249.