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Change Metaphors and Leadership Styles

Bob Little 

May 1, 2015

People who are responsible for leading and managing organizational change must understand their own assumptions about managing change, and examine the possibilities offered by different assumptions, if they are to reduce their and their colleagues’ frustration levels.

Gareth Morgan’s work on organizational metaphors examines a range of assumptions about how organizations work. The four most commonly used are the:

  • Machine metaphor.
  • Political metaphor.
  • Organism metaphor.
  • Flux and transformation metaphor.

The machine metaphor tends to inform many approaches to organizational change, particularly project management and planning-oriented approaches. Many people recognize the political map of organizational life as significant, while the flux and transformation metaphor appears to model the true complexity of how change happens. Models of organizations as open, interconnected, interdependent sub-systems sit within the organism metaphor. This model, which underpins much of the thinking that drove the creation of the HR function, views change as a process of adapting to environmental changes.

Dave Webber, an HR specialist and experienced leader of organizational change, says, “I favor the organism metaphor but, in making change relevant and useful to a target group, it’s important to understand how they describe and think about the organization.”

Different change metaphors produce different assumptions about what good leaders do. Although the hero-leader is a popular notion of leadership, history reveals that leaders with different styles can be equally successful.

In championing visionary leadership, Warren Bennis distinguishes leadership from management. John Kotter echoes his view. However, Ronald A. Heifetz and Donald L. Laurie, along with Jean Lipman-Blumen, argue against the need for visionary leadership. Heifetz and Laurie advocate adaptive leadership, which is about taking people out of their comfort zones, letting people feel external pressure, and exposing conflict. Lipman-Blumen emphasizes the need for leaders to ensure connectivity – perceiving connections among diverse people, ideas and institutions even when the parties themselves don’t.

Studies at the end of the 20th century that compared the effects of “transformational leadership” with those of “transactional leadership” indicated that charismatic and inspirational leadership were the elements that led most reliably to team success.

Peter Senge advocates dispersed leadership, identifying three types of leader in the organizational system; while Mary Beth O’Neill names four key leadership roles in any change process. Howard Gardner’s research indicates that leaders who had great influence embodied stories and took care to connect well with their audiences.

As the pace of change has increased in the 21st century, ideas have emerged that leaders need less vision and more connectivity. From a leadership perspective, both “outer” (what the leader does) and “inner” (what goes on inside the leader) leadership are important for achieving organizational change. Daniel Goleman‘s checklist of emotional intelligence competencies includes elements of inner and outer leadership. Goleman also defines six leadership styles and says that a leader should select the right style for the right situation, taking into account the necessary conditions for success and the long-term consequences. Meanwhile, Esther Cameron and Mike Green identify five leadership qualities, arguing that leaders must demonstrate these in varying amounts according to the type of challenge being faced.

Bennis and Stephen R. Covey both place high value on the inner life of leaders. Bennis emphasizes the need for self-knowledge, whereas Covey lists principles and guidelines to help leaders develop positive thinking patterns. Kotter says that the hard work must be put in early in the change process, while Rosabeth Moss Kanter says the hardest part comes in the middle and that perseverance is key.

Kathryn Horton of Turning Factor, a training and business development company delivering services nationally and internationally, comments, “I agree with change being understood from a more holistic perspective and that, for change to take place and be sustainable, there must be a clear alignment at all levels within an organization. Drawing upon the work pioneered by Robert Dilts, which is also based on the ‘neurological levels’ proposed by anthropologist Gregory Bateson, for any change to be sustainable, that change must align with the organization’s vision, identity and values. Then you must ensure that people have the necessary skills, capabilities, processes, and behaviors to embed the change.

“The success of change is often associated with the success of the leadership, which accords with my experience of dealing with change management projects. It’s important to create a culture where individuals see change as an everyday action in the workplace and view it as an evolving opportunity rather than a constant threat. Change happens in the workplace every day – often going unnoticed. The accountability for ensuring that change happens successfully lies not only with the leadership but also with the followership.”

“One of the problems for leaders today is the assumption that their role is always to lead transformational change,” says Dave Webber. “The concepts of connected or servant styles of leadership have their advocates but there are few examples of how they’ve been developed in people where they’re not part of their natural style. In my experience, the best leaders don’t instigate change for the sake of it. Rather, they have a sense of what’s wrong in an organization and develop an engaging vision of how things need to be different. They find ways of articulating this and taking people with them – including using professionals to support the change if necessary.

“The most effective change comes about where the followers don’t follow a ‘hero’ blindly. The leader must ensure that followers understand the change holistically. This means there’s a clear, understood alignment between the organization’s mission and purpose, the improved outcomes sought for stakeholders, the business results that will arise, the changed behaviors necessary, along with the values of the organization and its people. If the leader gets it right, the followers choose to follow – and those who choose not to can say so and are treated with dignity.”

The change leader has to be courageous and self-aware, choose the right action at the right time, and keep a steady eye on the ball. However, the leader alone can’t make change happen. A team needs to be in place, with well-thought-out roles and committed people who’re “in for the duration,” not just for the “kick-off.” One thing is certain: the going is never smooth.

What words do you use when talking about change, and which kind of leadership suits change in your organization? Share your thoughts in our comments section below.

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2 comments on “Change Metaphors and Leadership Styles”:

  1. Gay wrote:

    A great post – thanks for sharing! As a change professional I loved the reminder of the great heritage and inspiration that I work with, something that I can lose sight of in the hurly burly.
    While there’s validity in all the metaphors listed, I find the organisation-as-ecosystem metaphor particularly useful, with connotations of evolution and adaptation. Also, the concept of ecological niches in the organisation (or the market in which the organisation exists) is very helpful. For one role or function to change within an organisation, there is a need to consider who or what else may be impacted, and plans made accordingly to maximise the success of the change.

    • Liz Cook wrote:

      I appreciate this metaphor too. It helps us remember that there are living people involved! Also that change can be almost imperceptibly slow but relentless none-the-less, or in fast, surprising spurts of activity, and that both are valid and worthwhile.
      Liz from the Mind Tools team.