Peter Fuda believes that if a picture is worth a thousand words then seven metaphors can provide a panoramic picture of successful leadership. The Australian management consultant has studied how individuals transform themselves into highly effective leaders, and believes the process can be boiled down to seven metaphors, from fire to a snowball to Russian dolls.
Metaphors are powerful because they are simple and familiar. They are also amorphous enough to invite people into an idea and allow them to play with it in their own development. Tired of the long list of attributes that leadership literature throws out about superhero leaders, and believing that in a volatile, complex world, the simple formulas in those books wouldn’t work, Mr. Fuda decided to study some of his successful clients.
“The leaders I was working with didn’t bear any relationship to the superheroes in the books. I asked myself, ‘How does an ordinary manager become an extraordinary leader?’” he says in an interview. He captured their journey to effectiveness through these metaphors, which he shares in his just-published book Leadership Transformed. He believes that employing the seven notions can allow you to accomplish in about a year what took them each several:
Symbolizing ambition, this is first among equals of the seven metaphors, the most important part of transformation personally and organizationally because it illuminates the reason for change – the motivational forces that initiate and sustain transformation efforts. “The why is the most important part of the how,” he says.
Fire connotes passion, anger, love, desire, and urgency. In transformation, it is often connected to the so-called burning platform, the need to transform because an organization or individual is failing, and a leap must be taken into the unknown – like jumping off a burning oil rig. But to sustain transformation, Mr. Fuda believes it’s more important to have a burning ambition than a burning platform. That means moving from a mindset of perennial fear and urgency to a more energizing context that can sustain the arduous journey ahead.
“Leaders must get personal about why they want to change – leaving a legacy, perhaps, or serving the customers better, or helping the people they work with,” he says. “Fire is the leverage for the journey. When things get tough, they come back to the why.”
Represented by a snowball rolling downhill, the journey’s momentum is set in motion when leaders openly acknowledge their shortcomings and flaws, and then make a public declaration of their willingness to change. This goes against the traditional belief that leaders must be strong and never show weakness. But Mr. Fuda argues that when acknowledged by a leader, weaknesses actually become strengths, particularly when linked to a higher purpose, such as reinforcing the shared standards of the organization. Nothing can create momentum faster, he says, than when a chief executive officer turfs an employee who violates the organization’s shared standards just to hit the numbers. Everyone comes together, and the snowball rolls down the hill.
The transformation from amateur cook to master chef involves recipes, utensils, and cooking methods. Similarly, leaders need to apply leadership frameworks, tools and strategies to be successful.
An important one he champions is the transformation from guru to guide. “Many leaders feel they have to be gurus – must provide all the answers. People look to them for knowledge. The shift people we studied made was from guru to guide – they were more successful by letting people find the answers themselves,” he says.
In sports, the head coach does not work in isolation and that should be the same in your organization. There should be multiple coaches: Bosses, peers, and even subordinates from within the organization; outside consultants; and family and friends, all providing feedback and support. “This is not about how a leader is a coach but about how successful leaders allow them to be coached,” he says.
Mr. Fuda notes that in The Phantom of the Opera, the phantom wears a mask to conceal his personal imperfections, but even though everyone knows it’s not his real face, he prefers the façade. When leaders wear masks, it undermines trust, and to be successful they must take the covering off. Masks can also disconnect leaders from who they are.
“When leaders demask and become more of their authentic self, warts and all, they become more effective,” he says. Since followers know their leaders aren’t perfect, it can be inspiring to have the truth admitted.
Leaders can sometimes feel they are trapped, like Bill Murray in the movie Groundhog Day, repeating the same efforts that don’t seem to work. He urges you to go into the editing room, and change the script, through reflection on your situation.
The leaders in his study kept talking about multiple journeys, notably the leadership journey they were on, the team’s journey, and the organizational journey. As with Russian dolls that fit together, those journeys are intertwined, and must be co-ordinated for effective transformation.
Harvey Schachter is a Battersea, Ont.-based writer specializing in management issues. He writes Monday Morning Manager and management book reviews for the print edition of Report on Business and an online work-life column Balance. E-mail Harvey Schachter