by Peter Fuda and Richard Badham
What does it take for an ineffective manager to become a highly effective leader? Talk to 50 top CEOs, management consultants, and academics, and you’ll get a different answer from each. There are countless books, models, and formulas for success. But the truth is this: Leadership transformation is deeply dependent on context. Everyone follows his own path, has her own story. The key for people who are seeking transformation is to identify the common threads in the experiences of others who have achieved success and absorb the insights they find there.
That was our ambition five years ago, when we embarked on a doctoral research project. We began with an in-depth study of seven CEOs whose success in transforming themselves, their leadership teams, and their organizations was well documented. They had all seen radical improvement in 360-degree feedback on their personal effectiveness, along with significant gains for their units or organizations in financial performance, customer approval, and employee engagement. We captured their stories through a series of lengthy interviews, conducted a rigorous linguistic analysis, and discovered that several themes were common to all seven in the challenges they faced and the strategies they used.
In ensuing conversations with these chief executives, we discovered that one of the best ways to elicit deep and broad discussion of those key themes—and to describe the CEOs’ mastery of what they had learned—was through metaphor.
Ultimately we uncovered seven interdependent metaphors, four of which are outlined in this article: fire (representing ambition), snowball (accountability), mask (authenticity), and movie (self-reflection). As familiar as these may sound, they contain useful insights about how leaders can become more effective. And their familiarity means you can recall them easily—which is helpful when trying to change entrenched behavior—and talk about them effectively with a group. As the organizational theorist Karl Weick once wrote, “People see more things than they can describe in words.”
Since our initial CEO analysis, we have used the metaphors with more than 10,000 managers on four continents as a way of pushing them to ask tough questions and to make changes based on the answers. The feedback we’ve received suggests that they are a reliable catalyst for individual and organizational transformation. In the examples below, you’ll see how some of our initial study subjects—and other executives—embraced the metaphors with great success. We also offer a few prompts to help you kick off your own leadership transformation.
In the modern business context, you can always find a crisis to respond to. That’s why there are a lot of these arsonist firefighters. I used to be that way, too. Nowadays I definitely prefer to move toward something rather than away from something. —Tim, CEO research subject
In 2004 Tim was desperate to turn around his advertising company. Profits were down, employees were quitting, and competitors were gaining ground. He had personal issues, too. He was insecure about his leadership ability and worried about his health. Listening to his story, and hearing similar ones from other executives, we couldn’t help thinking of the proverbial burning platform: Tim was putting out fires. But many conversations later, we found something else burning in Tim—ambition. He told us he wanted to “lead a big and authentic life” and to push his organization toward worthy social causes. Within three years he had done just that, helping to found the Earth Hour campaign, which in 2011 led more than one billion people around the globe to turn off their lights in a symbolic stand against climate change. This initiative won his agency a Titanium award, the most prestigious advertising award in the world.
For us, fire represents the forces that initiate a personal or organizational transformation and sustain it over time. Conventional change literature suggests that fear is a necessary and even desirable motivator. By contrast, our research suggests that although fear may provide the initial spark for action, aspiration is a far more important motivator. Sustainable change requires the fire of a “burning ambition.”
We recently used this metaphor with the executive team of a global IT services company—a group of presidents from 10 countries who were consumed by their burning platform: a huge budget, internal problems, and very difficult marketplace conditions. As the conversation shifted toward their collective aspirations, the president of strategy declared that it was time the team focused on the future instead of its current pain. The president of sales followed that provocation by explaining that he had grown up only a mile from the company’s head office and had always dreamed of working there. Now his dream was to make the company a leader in the emerging services economy. Inspired, the team agreed. Subsequently the company shifted investment dollars toward new services such as cloud computing and cybersecurity. The global head of sales and marketing later reflected, “The notion of a burning ambition was a revelation, and my focus shifted almost immediately. I hadn’t realized how consumed I had become fighting fires. The metaphor has helped me to ignite enthusiasm for the new direction.”