Monday, May 7, 2012

The Unfit Metaphor

There’s nothing so uncomfortable as an ill-fitting metaphor. It feels sticky, wedged into a crevice it doesn’t belong, gritty with sand, and smeared with sunscreen that only makes one’s fingers greasy when trying to remove it.

Such is the case in a leadership blog Tweeted today by some well-meaning consultant-types. I won’t directly dispute the suggestions here about creating a stellar team.

It seems like the writer has the right ideas. I’m not a leadership expert (yet) but I have studied some of the seminal works, Blanchard and the like, and I think this article has a good mix of approaches.

It’s the metaphor with which I take issue.

When comparing two similar things, or when using one to analyze another, it’s important to find the most accurate metaphor. I don’t think these characteristics say “rock band:”

·         Have a clear vision and purpose.

·         Recruit star players / Find your team’s star power.

·         Help the team know their strengths and the strengths of others.

·         Let people play to their strengths.

·         Let them be stars.

I’m not a rock band expert, either; though we did live in Charlotte for two years with our sole occupation the promotion of Backyard Green. Never heard of them? Big surprise.

Without dissecting each of the items on the consultant’s list, I’ll just explain how the metaphor fails. It fails because
this isn’t what rock bands really are; it’s what leadership consultants assume them to be. The real metaphor to a rock band has to include the following roles: drama queen, drunk guy, parental-type, prima donna, and music purist.

These people create powerful winds that will blow the team in one direction or another if not caught with the proper amount of sail.

There is a science to using examples for the purpose of illustrating points. The reasons for using examples vary, but I would submit that familiarity, visualization, and clarity are primary reasons for employing an example.

Like so: the basic qualities of a train include: straight rails, speed, unchangeable velocity. So the train works as a metaphor for deterministic circumstances such as alcoholism or depression wherein removing oneself from such inertia would require immense strength.

If most of the rock bands with which we are familiar are also exceedingly dysfunctional, prone to hard partying and dismal, sometimes fatal, conclusions, why would a manager want to use a rock band as a symbol of his team’s functionality?

What rock band has a vision? Mostly they just want to be famous, get girls, and play music. Most bands have a general idea of their preferred sound, and maybe this is the “vision” to which the writer refers; but the very best bands evolve (U2) as they age and as their own proficiency improves. As for a band's purpose, see the above statement about getting girls.

So use the rock band. But use it for rock band reasons: disruption, energy, passion that frightens but engages its listeners and creators.

Our team is like a rock band because we encourage conflict: speak your mind, let’s fight, and then let the purpose of the team enable us to forgive one another and continue on.

Our team is like a rock band because we know how talented everyone is and we credit each other for contributions while also expecting each other to get better every day.

What work team feels that way? What work team could stay intact, forgive one another like siblings, if their ideas were challenged, trashed, and taunted?

The value of a good metaphor is that it is seamless. It embeds so easily into the writing that just saying it helps people understand what you mean. I tell my students that college is like a gym membership, you can pay for it but unless you get on the treadmill you’ll never lose any weight. I mean that the treadmill is to weight loss as studying, reading, and writing are to education.

We did a great metaphor exercise a few months ago, inspired by this column that lauded an article using a baseball trade to describe a romantic break-up.

My personal favorite is the beach to describe love: warm, peaceful, the ocean stretching out with unknown possibility, a sense of oneness with everything; or hot, sandy, itchy, red, pealing skin, sticky hands holding a warm soda, the fetid stink of sunscreen and sweat.

The right metaphor is effortless. Its description accurately transcribes that which it is meant to symbolize. No one would think the hot, sunburned beach is a love worth pursuing.

And, really, who wants to work for a rock band?


  1. Love this! Rock band does seem like a very unfortunate choice in this instance.

    Your post reminded me of the book Five Flavors of Dumb by Antony John. That's my most recent exposure to the inner workings of a rock band and I think they had each of the roles you designated.

    1. Thanks for reading, Joy! My limited exposure to rock bands is dramatic at best and destructive at worst. Just didn't think it was a good "professional" metaphor.

  2. This was great--as a former management consultant I worked with a lot of rock band teams, not the kind in the original article but the late night, destroy the capital, someone definitely is getting screwed at the end kind.

    1. Thanks, J.B. I definitely worked on a few of these. Marketing teams always reminded me of community theatre. Another poor metaphor choice, I think ;-)


Love Builds Confidence

Going into the archives for some classic blogs to get this blog resurrected. It's no longer The 41st Year and Life on Clemson Road is, ...