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Metaphors for new management

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Mike WestwoodThe following feature is contributed by Mike Westwood of training organisation Ambit. This is the third of four feature articles and this one shows how metaphors can help us see similarities and differences between two things and so develop new meaning.


Marathon or horse race

Have you noticed what every marathon runner does at the beginning of the race? They start their watches. Every single person carries with them their own time. During the race, they monitor their own progress – minutes per mile, time at five miles. For the majority, where they finish in the field is of little interest; it’s what time you do that’s important.

Contrast this with a horse race. Here there is almost total focus on the horse that comes in first. Little interest is shown in those finishing second or third, while the rest are dismissed as also-rans.

Many organisations are like a horse race. At the top is one person and, underneath him (usually), a small number of senior managers – there just isn’t room at the top for any more bodies. Underneath this elite there are a larger number of people, necessary but less important.

Yet, in a marathon you have professional athletes from all over the world running with people who may only ever do this race once in their life, each person performing to their individual level. In a marathon, everyone is a winner – including those outside the race like cancer research and the disabled.

Mountain climbing

Another metaphor for the modern organisation is that of mountain climbing.

All climbers start pretty much from the same place. But the route you take can be different. You may ascend by a popular route such as a less demanding ridge. You might undertake a vertical wall or even tackle a route that has never previously been undertaken.

Climbers are generally very good at choosing a route appropriate to their ability – usually at the top end of their ability. The point is, there is room at the top of every mountain for those who wish to be there.

In contrast, the traditional organisational culture is built like a ladder, with many rungs. Little room for soloists or quick ascents here. Time must be spent on each rung before moving up. Effort is put into reaching for the rungs. The longer you stay on the ladder, the higher you get. The higher the rung, the higher the grade, the bigger the office, the more important you become. But, because the organisational ladder narrows sharply as it reaches upwards, there is less and less room. The top becomes exclusive.

Some people, faced with all these rungs, just give up from the start. They manage a few rungs and then get exhausted. This confirms the view those higher up have of them as “hands” or “drones”.

Train or taxi

A third comparative metaphor is that of the taxi or the train. Apply this metaphor to your personal career.

For example, is your career like travelling by taxi? You hail a cab, get in, tell the driver where you want to go, you get out. Maybe hail another, go somewhere else. You can change your mind when you like. You might even do a bit of walking or cycling. Or you could stay in one place for a while.

Or, is your career like travelling on a train? Before starting, did you consult the timetable and choose the stations and times that were closest to your requirements? A train travels along tracks and promises to get you to a station further up the line. This station is the destination of the train of course, as predetermined by the railway company. It is not exactly where you want to be, but it’s close enough. At least you know where you’ll be (you hope) and at what time (also, you hope).

Where are you now

A metaphor provides us with a surprising likeness between two things that we might otherwise think are very different. A metaphor invites us to explore similarities and differences between two things. From this interaction of disparate things, we get a new and compact meaning.

So, are you on a mountain or a ladder, in a taxi or a train?


Mike Westwood is a consultant with Ambit which is a training organisation whose aim is to work with clients to develop individuals and teams, to solve performance problems, focus staff, drive through major change

Mike’s previous articles for HR Zone and TrainingZONE are:

Team working and senior management, and;

Organisational Solutions that don’t work



3 Responses

  1. I recently recieved a set of stories which link in with metaphor
    A British Govt visitor is making a tour of darkest Africa. Everywhere he
    goes to make a speech, the natives are jumping up & down shouting “Umbi
    Mgumbi”. He is very happy with the way his tour has gone, & on the last
    day he is being driven to the airport by his hosts. After hours & hours of
    dust & mud-huts, they see a beautiful, white-painted, modern building.
    “Oh” says the visitor, “is that a new palace for the President?” “No”
    replies the host “It’s our new cattle improvement station. We bought a
    prize bull from Europe to strengthen our animals, & he lives there, & the
    cows are brought to visit him.” The visitor says that he would like to
    look around such an important development, where=upon his host tells him
    “You can’t go in there, it’s knee deep in Umbi Mgumbi”!

    Just goes to show in a multi-cultural environment, one has to make sure
    that our interpretation of the locals’ signs & symbols is accurate.

  2. And this one
    A Butterfly

    A man found a butterfly cocoon. One day a small opening appeared, he sat and
    watched the butterfly for several hours as it struggled to force its body
    through the little hole. Then it seemed to stop making any progress. It
    appeared as if it had gotten as far as it could and could go no farther. So,
    the man decided to help the butterfly.

    He took a pair of scissors and snipped the remaining bit of the cocoon. The
    butterfly then emerged easily; but something was strange. The butterfly had
    a swollen body and shriveled wings. The man continued to watch the butterfly
    because he expected at any moment, the wings
    would unfold and expand to be able to support the body, which would
    contract in time. Neither happened. In fact, the butterfly spent the
    rest of its life crawling around with a swollen body and deformed wings.

    It was never able to fly.

    What the man did not understand, was that the restricting cocoon and the
    struggle required for the butterfly to get through the small opening of the
    cocoon are nature`s way of forcing fluid from the body of the butterfly into
    its wings so that it would be ready for flight once it got free from the
    cocoon.

    Moral #1:

    Sometimes struggles are exactly what we need in our life.

    If we went through life without any obstacles, that would cripple us.
    Obstacles force us to look at things differently and encourage us to change.
    If we didn’t encounter any obstacles, we would not be as strong as what we
    could have been.

    Not only that, we could never fly.

  3. And this one

    The Old Man, Boy, and a Donkey.

    Lesson: There is no way to please everyone.

    They were going to town and it was decided that the boy should ride the
    donkey. As they went along, they passed some people who thought that it
    was a shame for the boy to ride and the old man to walk. The man and boy
    decided that maybe the critics were right so they changed positions.

    Soon they passed some more people who thought that it was a real shame
    for that man to make such a small boy walk. The two decided that maybe
    they both should walk.

    Soon they passed some more people who thought that it was stupid to walk
    when they had a donkey to ride. The man and the boy decided that maybe
    the critics were right, so they decided that they both should ride.

    They soon passed other people who thought that it was a shame to put such
    a load on a poor little animal. The old man and the boy decided that
    maybe the critics were right so they decided to carry the donkey.

    As they crossed a bridge, they lost their grip on the animal and it fell
    into the river and drowned.

    The moral of this story is: If you try to please everyone, you will
    eventually lose your aXX.

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