One of the most important skills, arguably the most important skill, a leader must possess is definitely represented by the ability to communicate effectively. In order to convey their vision, ideas, interest and enthusiasm, enthuse their followers with these and spur them to action, leaders have to be first and foremost outstanding communicators. Metaphors and figurative language can definitely help leaders to develop and master this art.
Metaphors can indeed prove to be a completely valuable and effective tool for business leaders both when holding conversations with employees within the organisational settings and when carrying on a conversation with other interlocutors outside the business premises. Having recourse to metaphors can in fact effectually help leaders to attract the other people interest in, and let them focus their attention on, some specific features or aspects of the message they want to put across (Morgan, 1997).
According to Weick (1979), leaders by means of figurative speech, which enables them to explain in a simpler fashion the corporate mechanism and theories, can effectively contribute to create and establish “healthy cultures.”
The efficacy and significance of metaphors and storytelling for shaping corporate culture and influencing individual behaviour within the organisational settings can definitely be taken as axiomatic (James and Minnis, 2004). Organisations are becoming so metaphor-dependant insofar as these could even not properly work without having recourse to them (Mitroff and Kilmann, 1975).
By enabling business leaders to clearly describe their organisations and better relate these to the external environment, figurative language represents a powerful tool for creating a positive culture, favour individual comprehension of the organisational mechanism and foster relations in the workplace (Van Engen, 2008).
Figures of speech and stories show to be particularly effectual to communicate complex ideas in order to employees understand and learn these more quickly and firmly engrave their meaning on their minds. After all, individuals having brilliant ideas but being unable to clearly communicate these and enthuse their followers with them could actually hardly be considered as leaders. The lack of communication skills is clearly due to pose substantial limits to the value and significance of the message a leader may try to get across; the recipients may in fact gain a partial or incomplete comprehension of what is actually meant by the leader.
One of the most important benefits of metaphor is indeed that to add dimension to a speech so that this can be better understood (Van Engen, 2008). Yet, according to Charteris-Black (2005), metaphors represent a strong element and feature of persuasive discourse.
Whether, as most likely, figures of speech are by no means included in the agenda of any business leader, it should be the case for these to redress their view about this potentially powerful means and try to make some efforts to find the time to better investigate and hopefully learn to master the usage of figurative language.
The role of mangers is indisputably of paramount importance and, although to different degrees according to the circumstances, it can be averred that their influence at large upon organisational culture is sorely remarkable (Greiner, 1983). Properly mastering figures of speech would definitely enable managers to craftily “cast vision and shape culture” (Van Engen, 2008) and to create a mutual vision and values which ultimately influence the entire workforce (Burns, 1978; Smircich and Morgan, 1982).
Leaders who have the skills and capabilities to transform organisational systems and individual expectations, that is to say transformational leaders, have all a common denominator: a vision. Amongst the tools which transformational leaders use to create a vision and give meaning to organisations there also invariably is figurative language (Smircich and Morgan, 1982).
Leaders having recourse to figures of speech in order to capture individual attention actually activate a process which can be considered to some degree far superior to that of communicating in more concrete terms and can indeed attain far superior results: they can in fact generate emotions in their recipients. As posited by Fox et al. (2001), “emotions experienced at work are highly relevant and may affect motivation, organizational citizenship behaviour, performance appraisal, and negotiation outcomes.”
The main benefit of metaphors, which make it easier for followers to understand and relate to the vision, is that the final picture produced by its representation is formed by more than its essential components (Hamburger and Itzhayek, 1998).
One of the most compelling and successful examples of representation of a vision by means of a metaphor is definitely represented by the Disney Enterprises case.
To explain the essence and mechanism of his firm Walt Disney used the metaphor of the organisation as drama. The business was thus the theatre, the employees were the actors, acting according to the role assigned to each of them, the customers were the audience, the dress code was the costuming and tickets boots were the box offices (Smith and Eisenberg, 1987).
In order to every employee effectively and consistently play his/her part, it is necessary that the metaphor works as a real catalyst to which every single individual, at all levels, can clearly relate to. The vision is not created the moment it is expressed or unveiled, the transformational leader and every manager basically needs to act and behave according to that vision and refer to the metaphor used, to which all of the other employees also have to refer to as a common reference. This is the only way for the vision and the metaphor successfully contributing to the new organisational culture development, which is in turn translated into new strategies, practices and behaviour (Collins and Porras, 1994). It is by means of observation, self-interaction and social interaction that individuals can correctly and consistently understand their corporate world and behave accordingly (Bate, 1984).
Disney Enterprises is also a good example of how effectively figurative language develops and grows within organisations consistently with corporate culture, which it essentially aims at supporting.
The optimistic stories circulating at Disney were as craftily and as carefully prepared as their legendary characters; whereas stories contrary to the universal stereotype of happiness, which were eventually circulating within the business, were drastically and promptly repressed. As long as he was in life Walt was the unique official spokesperson for his business and really seldom he allowed someone else to speak in his place.
The stories artfully constructed by Disney, and which he did everything he could to ensure would have lived on, actually shaped Disney Enterprises organisational culture and enabled him to effectively endorse and foster the behaviour that the organisation, or rather himself, was expected from his employees (Boje, 1995).
It would be at this stage interesting to investigate why metaphors and figures of speech represent so powerful communication tools. It is very likely that the success of metaphors and storytelling actually rests with more than one factor. The success of storytelling can be first and foremost explained by the circumstance that our lives are stories on their own and therefore individuals easily tend to relate to these (James and Minnis, 2004). Moreover, craftily devised stories can indeed turn a “yawny business lesson into a life-or-death struggle” (Austin, 1995). Yet, figurative language has the power to touch the right chord that reaches the essence of a person’s being (James and Minnis, 2004).
The persuasive power of figurative speech can be basically explained by a three-step process: story, understanding and shared meaning. The process starts with one or more leaders telling a story whilst followers are listening. This leads to a better and more comprehensive understanding of the ideas and concepts which were previously known just in part and not genuinely fully understood by employees. Finally, individuals within the group use the shared meaning of the metaphor to better understand and acquaint themselves with other organizational concepts and ideas (Kaye and Jacobs, 1999).
By reaching every individual within an organisation, storytelling enables employers to achieve a cohesive sharing of meaning which is otherwise difficult or impossible to achieve to a so full extent (James and Minnis, 2004). The real significance and benefit of this process is represented by the belief that figurative language generates and the commitment this is able to elicit (Powers, 1983).
As showed by the Walt Disney example, figurative speech used by a remarkably charismatic “actor” can actually stimulate followers’ emotions and perceptions (James and Minnis, 2004).
The effectiveness and power of metaphors can actually be expressed by means of figurative language itself. Metaphors and figurative language can in fact be considered as somewhat of an assistance company, assisting you – managers and leaders – anytime, everywhere to be a more effective and persuasive leader and to more consistently shape organisational culture and receive employee support.
There are really a number of reasons for managers and leaders definitely needing to become much more than simply acquainted with figurative language. Figures of speech can also prove to be particularly beneficial under some circumstances such as in those situations requiring a new start or to reassure employees during a crisis (Kaye and Jacobson, 1999), not necessarily meaning by crisis a financial crisis. Metaphors are indeed very helpful also to sell products, stimulate good ideas and most of all design, develop and review organisational culture (James and Minnis, 2004).
The significance and value of figurative language for managers and leaders result amplified and strengthened by the importance Schein (2004) associates with the role these play in shaping, developing and controlling organisational culture. Taken for granted that the main and truly important task performed by leaders is to create and manage culture, Schein (2004) maintains that leaders’ talent is represented by their capability to “understand and work with culture” and destroy it when these deem it dysfunctional. Rather differently, Hatch (1997) stresses the importance of corporate culture positing that managers and leaders need to manage and lead with “cultural awareness” rather than manage culture. To this extent, just to provide a clearer image and generate emotions, Legge (1995) explains the management of culture resorting to the metaphor “riding a wave.” “The best the surf-rider can do is to understand the pattern of currents and winds that shape and direct the waves. He/she may then use them to stay afloat and steer in the desired path. But this is not the same as changing the basic rhythms of the ocean” (Legge, 1995).
Amongst the benefits of figurative language, cannot be really overlooked the positive effects it can produce by helping organisations to improve the relationships existing between managers and their staff. Figures of speech can help leaders to be perceived as more human and reduce distance between these and their followers, especially whether they use metaphors to recognise their past errors and laugh at them. The stories based on lessons learned through “mistakes, failures and derailments” are indeed among the most effective and powerful metaphors contributing to individuals growth and to some extent development (Kaye and Jacobson, 1999). Individuals tend to engrave stories on their memory and recall them promptly when they consider that these could prove to be useful to overcome some current issues or problems.
In perfect adherence to Aristotle’s ethos, it can be argued that business leaders attain more effective levels of credibility when telling stories revealing their personal fallibility. Individuals are in fact most likely to genuinely listen to a manager explaining his/her own mistakes and the lessons learned from his/her real experience, rather than to a manager giving prescriptive instructions (James and Minnis, 2004).
Metaphors and storytelling are really potentially powerful tools enabling managers and leaders to use these for a wide range of reasons, amongst them to: explain and shape corporate culture, modify and control individual behaviour, ease problem-solving and decision-making processes, manage change, plan strategy, enhance leaders’ image, transfer knowledge and train and develop future leaders (James and Minnis, 2004).
What matters the most is invariably wisely and honestly use metaphors and figurative language and categorically avert to use these to beguile and deceive employees. Whether this should be the case trying and win back their trust would prove to be, using figurative language, “a mission impossible.”
It can properly be concluded with Macleish (Hypocrite Author) that “a world ends when its metaphor dies.”
Longo, R., (2012), Metaphor as a leadership enhancer and persuasive communication tool, Milan: HR Professionals, [online].