21st Century Leadership: Ditch the Military Metaphors

Early in my leadership journey, I attended a three day retreat on Emotional Intelligence for Leaders.  There were about 20 of us, all from different organizations, all at different stages in our careers, and all starting with a different understanding of what emotional intelligence was.

Over the three days, there were a range of activities and exercises, along with time for quiet reflection – for journalling, for thinking, for deeply engaging with what we were learning.

Stereotypical Leader
Photo: Pixabay/3dman_eu

But there was one guy.  He was from a defence-related organisation, and he constantly seemed short tempered with the exercises.  He didn’t really participate in the activities, unless it was to state categorically what he thought the answer was.  He was very forthcoming with his views about the value of the course.

Eventually he conceded that he was made to attend.  He didn’t need to be there, but some people in his team had ‘volunteered’ him.  He already knew everything we were covering in the course, “because this is what they teach you in the military”.

In many regards, his attitude and behaviour confirmed what many in the room already believed about the military’s approach to leadership development – the cliche – the command and control leadership style assumptions many of us make.

I recently listened to a brilliant interview of General Stanley McChrystal by Tony Robbins, called Becoming an Extraordinary Leader.  It’s quite long, but about 47 minutes in, General McChrystal says something quite remarkable:

Chess Master
Photo: Pixabay/3dman_eu

“…for years I thought that ‘chess master’ was the best analogy to a successful leader, because a chess master controls 16 chess pieces and moves them, and if he or she is a good strategist – they win… [but] I realised the gardener is a better analogy for it… because a gardener doesn’t grow anything – only plants can grow things, but the gardener is critical, because the gardener creates the environment: the gardener prepares the ground, the gardener plants the ground, waters, feeds weeds, protects and at the appropriate time, collects the harvest…”


And this really got me thinking:

  • If a retired four-star General sees leadership this way, why do we still hold this stereotypical view of how the military works?
  • And more importantly, what is the impact of us clinging to old and outdated metaphors?
  • What new metaphors would be more consistent with 21st Century Leadership?

Military Metaphors not fit for 21st Century Leadership

As a leader, whenever you use a military metaphor to describe what you are doing, or what the organisation is doing or experiencing, you will – perhaps unintentionally – be reinforcing the stereotypes your employees hold of what leadership is.  Here are just a few that you might not even have realised you used:

  • When you have a product launch
  • When you refer to junior employees as “Rank and File
  • When you talk about your customer service team being front-line staff or even as being in the trenches
  • When a crisis occurs and you convene a war-room to sort it out
  • When you describe external criticism as being under attack or under fire
  • When you refer to our competitors as the enemy
  • When you call for troops to be marshalled
  • When you create a plan of attack
  • When an employee makes a mistake and you refer to friendly fire
  • When somebody drops a bombshell
  • When you arm yourself with evidence before a meeting
  • When you call for everyone to bunker down

Whatever the situation, there’s probably a military metaphor to fit your needs – but should you use it?

Metaphors for 21st Century Leadership

Communication is hard, and while these long-standing metaphors might seem to fit the bill very neatly, you need to consider not only whether they describe the situation, but how they make other people feel.

Do you want them to see you as a supreme commander?  In control of all the pieces on the chess-board?

If so, then you need to be across everything, managing everything, and you need to be prepared to deploy military tactics to achieve your objective…  Your employees are unlikely to seize the initiative, take risks, or develop alternative strategies to dealing with problems that arise – instead, they’ll wait for your to ‘lead’ them, to issue instructions and tell them what to do.

If this isn’t your idea of a fun day at the office, the you need to consider metaphors that your employees will feel empowered by, nurtured by, that will grow them, and show them that you trust them.

Leader as Gardener

21st Century Leadership Gardener
Photo: MaxPixel/Rush

As General McChrystal said, a gardener can’t make the plants grow, but she can ensure the right conditions exist to achieve optimal yield.  Weeding, keeping pests at bay, complementary planting, watering, feeding/fertilising – all recognise that the ‘magic’ rests with the employees, and the leader has to work on getting the right conditions at work to support that to happen.

The leader still has to muck in and help out, but not by issuing commands and ‘making’ things happen.

Leader as Coach

21st Century Leadership Coach
Photo: PixaBay/3dman_eu

We all can relate to exceptional coaches – whether in the domain of sport, or within the professional/life-coaching sector.  What does a coach do?  He observes our performance, and provides advice and guidance to support us to be better everyday than we were the day before.  He tells us things we might not want to hear but that are essential to our development.  He can tell whether we’ve done what we said we would, and makes the consequences of our lack of commitment clear.

And ultimately, a coach is in our service – not the other way around.

Leader as Servant

21st Century Leadership Servant
Photo: PixaBay/3dman_eu

The idea that a leader is there to serve his or her employees is not new – but it is powerful.

When you are in service of your team, you care about them.  You want to make sure they have what they need to be successful.  You consider what is going to be required next and make sure it is ready before they need it.

You ask questions like: “what can I do for you?” “how can I help you with that task?” and “how does my impact serve the team and the organisation?”


Leader as Explorer

21st Century Leadership Explorer
Photo: PixaBay/3dman_eu

Like the inimitable Indiana Jones, the explorer is bold and (mostly) fearless.  The explorer is calm in a crisis, and can navigate through the most difficult circumstances.  The explorer says things like: “I know where we’re going, and I can make sure we get there safely”, “don’t worry, we can do this together”, and helps people to confront their greatest fears and self-imposed limits.

The explorer expects the unexpected, and isn’t phased by it.  The explorer knows the value of a great plan – and the times when to throw the plan out the window.


What are your favourite leadership metaphors?  Please comment below.

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