Action Wheel Leadership

Leadership Metaphors

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When learning leadership metaphors, begin with existence.   This leadership metaphor is rooted in the history of your organization.  


Leadership Metaphors Existence

Each leadership metaphor represents one of the Action Wheel dimensions of leadership as developed in Dr. Robert Terry's book Authentic Leadership: Courage In Action.

Action Wheel Dimension: Existence

Leadership Metaphor: Life Is A Gift

Isabel Briggs Myers called her book on personality types, Gifts Differing. A number of us, however, build our world view on the idea that not only are our traits gifts but that life itself is a gift. Just what is a gift? Lewis Hyde in The Gift: Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World describes it as "a thing we do not get by our own efforts. We cannot buy it; we cannot acquire it through an act of will. It is bestowed upon us. Thus, we rightly speak of 'talent' as a 'gift,' for although a talent can be perfected through an effort of the will, no effort in the world can cause its initial appearance. Mozart, composing on the harpsichord at the age of four, had a gift." The gift metaphor is pervasive in religious traditions.

When we use the gift metaphor, we link life to existence and make existence a gift also.

Existence is that from which human action moves. Existence is stubborn; it is pre-resource. By viewing existence as a gift, the "thatness" of existence is transformed.

What is taken in, received, appropriated, enjoyed, and relished becomes internal rather than external to our lives. That which has been alien is now friendly; that which is strange, now familiar. Thus, "gift" as a leadership metaphor causes us to look at the givenness of life from a mode of cherished affirmation.

The challenge within the Leadership Metaphor of Existence is to know the history of the organization, what it means, how to celebrate it and how to pass it on. It requires willingness to address the truth, both good and bad, of that history. This Dimension defines, focuses and engages everyone in the purpose of the organization. Values are identified, preserved, embodied and passed on to guide the organization toward its purpose.

The Leadership Metaphor of Existence Core Ideas:

The past (Existence) is the necessary foundation to all the other Dimensions of the Action Wheel. The issues of the past impact the present and the future. Bob Terry taught that some points of discussion when exploring Existence within your organizational life might include:

  • The meaning of life was essentially established at creation.
  • This meaning is discovered by close attention to the realities of history, as we can best know it.
  • The long history of belief and the traditions that are based on this history must be respected.
  • Tradition, history and community form the ground for all that is of real value.
  • It is important to be in line with (at one with, in touch with, a servant to) the essential nature of creation. However difficult that may be, that is the purpose of life.
  • Decisions are best made if grounded in the traditions, the history of teachings and the wisdom of the greater community.
  • As a gift that is "good" for us (not always pleasant, but constructed for our own betterment) life should be celebrated.

There is an immutable "giveness" to life. It is what it is.

  • No one person, standing alone, can know the ultimate richness of life or plumb its depths.

The Leadership Metaphor of Existence: Building on the Past

  • The past launches our actions.
  • The past limits our actions.
  • The past provides stability for engagement.
  • The past locks us into the status quo and arrests our engagement.
  • Preserve the part of the past we consider worthy of taking into the future.
  • Acknowledge and own the part of the past that we would rather deny and escape.

The Leadership Metaphor of Existence: Gifts of the Past

The challenge of ignoring or adapting to the past is constant and persistent. There are situations when we want to preserve and build on the past. Other situations require us to face a past that should not be preserved. Denial and avoidance are a constant danger in this dimension. The past is a gift. Sometimes we are excited and delight in the gift. Sometimes we hate the gift and want to toss it away. In either case, the gift is given and we are challenged to receive it, understand it and embrace it.

Stewards of the Past

Stepping into the future, we remain stewards of the past. We carry history forward. Our interpretation of the past has clear implications for the future. The past is a never-ending process:

  • Always open to reinterpretation and rewriting
  • Alive and open, not dead and closed
  • A foundation for long-term authentic action
  • Provides the fundamental character for all that follows

Preserving the Past

What things do you have that link you to the past in ways that motivate, guide and propel your actions in the future? These symbols are significant, laden with meaning, invoke memories and can launch you into the future with greater wisdom and insight. Parts of the past are solidified, revered, represented, and documented in many ways.

Organizations must pay attention to the ways the members preserve remnants of their past. These representations are a concrete reference point to the past and germinate into the future. Some examples include: icons, ceremonies, symbols, sacred memories, sacred texts, documents, rituals, routines, remembrances, ceremonies, costumes, flags, performances, etc.

Core Values

Core values are tied to the organization. Core values are:

  • The ideals that give life to the organization.
  • The beliefs and principles necessary to sustain the work of the organization
  • The definition of meaning for the organization
  • The identity that creates a secure foundation
  • The foundation for the organization's purpose, mission, vision, and goals
  • The strength within the organization to provide meaning in chaos
  • Direction for future action
  • The basis for achieving success

Organizational Purpose and Identity

Organizational purpose and Identity can be defined using Jim Collins' Hedgehog concept (2001). Collins found that it took an average of 4 years for most companies to clearly define their Hedgehog. The three questions that make up the concept are:

  1. What are we passionate about?
  2. What can we be the best in the world at?
  3. What is our economic engine? Or in other words, what simple powerful financial measure tells us that we are reaching our first two questions?

Related Pages:

Leadership Metaphors

Leadership Metaphors: Resources

Leadership Metaphors: Structure

Leadership Metaphors: Power

Leadership Metaphors: Mission

Leadership Metaphors: Meaning

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