Alvesson, Mats & André Spicer – Metaphors We Lead By

  • metaphors. Mats Alvesson & André Spicer, in their book “Metaphors we lead by. Understanding leadership in the real world” (2010) are presenting six metaphors for leadership (see below the entry “action/ cognition/ emotion/ outcome/ value”). A metaphor is composed of two parts: 1) the source (the familiar domain – the five levels) and 2) the target (the strange domain – and, in this case, the leadership). Up to them, the scientists provided three perspectives of how a metaphor is constructed. Making the long story short, Mats Alvesson & André Spicer adopted the second perspective proposed by Joep Cornelissen. His model, the interaction model, is saying that a metaphor is breathing life in three steps: i) first, the source is presented in a clear and concise way; here the central point is the structure and hierarchies of terms/ concepts of the source; ii) secondly, the source is blended with the target; in this step, the two domains are interacting; and iii) finally the blend (the interaction) is analyzed and then compared with the theories in use. So, this is the interaction model (the second model): the first model (advancing the correspondence between the source and the target) and the third model (where is a transformation from the surface level to the deep level of the source/ the target) are mentioned by the two authors of the current book only as competing perspectives with less values. Besides the distinction between the source and the target, Alvesson and Spicer consider that there are three ingredients of a metaphor of leadership: 3) the leader, 4) the follower and 5) the organization. These three ingredients are perceptual positions – 1st (the leader), 2nd (the follower) and 3rd (the organization) – therefore perspectives that arise in the interaction of sensations, perceptions and representations. See Table 1
  • actions/ cognitions/ emotions/ outcomes/ values. The metaphors of leadership – the leader as saint, the leader as gardener, the leader as buddy, the leader as commander, the leader as bully and, finally, the leader as cyborg – are arranged, one upon another, in five levels. It’s a common drill, in the history of ideas, to spot and use levels to solve problems. For instance: Socrates, Plato and Aristotle used extensively two levels (mind versus senses). More recently Georges Ivanovitch Gurdjieff added another three levels (action/ cognition/ emotion). So, between mind and senses we can localise the actions, the thoughts and the emotions. Finally, the distinction between outcomes and values, two different levels disputing the domaine of the mind, was used also by Max Weber, a sociologist. In short, the following hierarchy, starting from the concrete and ending in the abstract, is used by Robert Dilts – an NLP representative, as well as by Mats Alvesson & André Spicer – in the 2010 book: senses -> actions -> cognitions -> emotions -> outcomes -> values. For lack of space, only Robert Dilts, Mats Alvesson and André Spicer will be quoted extensively here. Therefore, on the one hand, Dilts is saying that: “From the psychological point of view there seem to be five levels that you work with most often. (1) The basic level is your environment, your external constraints. (2) You operate on that environment through your behavior. (3) Your behavior is guided by your mental maps and your strategies, which define your capabilities: (4) These capabilities are organized by belief systems – which are the subject of this work – and (5) beliefs are organized by identity” (1990: 1). On the other hand, much latter, Dilts has added the sixth level – God, Nature, Universe, etc (therefore, the value level): “In modeling an individual there are a number of different aspects, or levels, of the various systems and sub-systems in which that person operated that we may explore. We can look at the historical and geographical environment in which the individual lived – i.e. when and where the person operated. We can examine the individual’s specific behaviors and actions – i.e. what the person did in that environment. We may also look at the intellectual and cognitive strategies and capabilities by which the individual selected and guided his or her actions in the environment – i.e. how the person generated these behaviors in that context. We could further explore the beliefs and values that motivated and shaped the thinking strategies and capabilities that the individual developed to accomplish his or her behavioral goals in the environment – i.e. why the person did things the way he or she did them in those times and places. We could look more deeply to investigate the individual’s perception of the self or identity he or she was manifesting through that set of beliefs, capabilities and actions in that environment – i.e. the who behind the why, how, where and when. We might also want to examine the way in which that identity manifested itself in relationship to theindividual’s familiy, colleagues, contemporaries, Western Society and Culture, the planet, God – i.e. who the person was in relation to who else” (1994: xxvi-xxvii). Be it as may be, Mats Alvesson & André Spicer presented a similar structure of levels: “Metaphors are helpful as support for memory and for the creation of imaginative gestalts and we suggest a framework based on 5Ps. Here the person doing leadership work may be prophesying through visions; preaching about morals and values; making psychotherapeutic interventions by targeting emotions, party-hosting in trying to create positive working climate; and acting pedagogically by trying to increase learning” (2017: 108). Earlier, instead of the five metaphors, they suggested six metaphors for the same levels (the commander and the bully were seen together at the level of action): “(…) we identified six broad metaphors that seem to be consistently used by many of the leaders (and wannabe leaders). These were the leader as saint, buddy, gardener, commander, cyborg and bully. We saw that each of these metaphors seemed to suggest different kinds of things which the (potential) leader should do: the saint should seek to inspire followers through their moral vision; the buddy should seek to cultivate good and friendly relations with their followers; the gardener should help their followers to develop and grow, the commander should lead from the front through strict, sometimes inspirational and sometimes perhaps even harsh action; the cyborg leads through relentless and often super-human performance exhibiting norms such as rationality and work discipline; and the bully should push their followers along through various forms of intimidation, including <kicking ass>” (2010: 196-197). See Image 1.
  • bright side/ dark side. Each metaphor – for instance, the leader as saint – has a bright side (the values) and a dark side (the outcomes). Espousing the metaphor of the leader as saint, the leader is advancing some values like salvation, but is hiding some outcomes like profit. In short, anyone who is seeking salvation, is ignoring profit. More than that. What is a bright side for one metaphor (say: the values for the leader as saint) is a dark side for another metaphor (in this case: the values for the leader as gardener). And vice versa: what is a dark side for one metaphor (as: the outcomes for the leader as saint) is a bright side for another metaphor (here: the outcomes for the leader as gardener). The same is truth for the other levels – the emotion, the cognition and the action… Before closing, I’ll linger on the distinction of bright side/ dark side that is exemplified in the psychology of Carl Gustav Jung and in the sociology of Erving Goffman with the couples: the persona versus the shadow; and the front-stage versus the back-stage. See Table 1.

Table 1:

Image 1:


  • Mats Alvesson & André Spicer (2010): “Metaphors we lead by. Understanding leadership in the real world”, Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group
  • Mats Alvesson, Martin Blom & Stefan Sveningsson (2017): “Reflexive leadership. Organizing in an imperfect world”, Sage Publications Ltd
  • Robert Dilts (1990): “Changing belief systems with NLP”, Meta Publications
  • Robert Dilts (1994): “Strategies of genius. Volume 1”, Meta Publications

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