Winning Battles: Leadership and the Metaphor of War

War metaphors are popular in our culture. For example, In Good to Great, Jim Collins teaches the "Stockdale Paradox" as a way to assess the facts in business. Or in a different context, Marv Albert announces that a basketball player is "raining bombs from way downtown." And even Ms. Torgerson tells her fourth grade class that they're all going to blow the quiz out of the water.

Yes, the war metaphor is all around us.

George Lakoff, coauthor of The Metaphors We Live By, explains that we like the war connection so much because it "highlights strategic thinking, team work, preparedness, the spectators in the world arena, the glory of winning and the shame of defeat"[1].

I think he's right.

The value of a metaphor is its ability to shed light on unfamiliar items/ideas by comparing them with items/ideas with which the lesser-known item/idea is similar, and with which the hearer/reader is more familiar.

Leadership can be one of those abstract concepts that benefits from the use of a clarifying metaphor. Many people talk about leadership, but fail to make the transition between high-altitude theories and ground-level actions. Therefore, I want to pick up the war metaphor and place it alongside leadership tactics as a way to think about how to emerge victorious in the battles we face - whether in the boardroom or the doctor's office.

1) Know the Terrain
The great military leader Napoleon Bonaparte wrote in his field journal, "If I always appear to be prepared, it because before entering on an undertaking, I have meditated at length and have foreseen what may occur. It is not genius which reveals to me suddenly what I should do when others do not know, it is focused thought and preparation"[2].

By terrain, I am mean to everything from culture, trends, and resources, to weather, health, and time of day. The leader must fight the tendency to walk blindly through the day, and instead force himself/herself to cultivate an awareness of all things - large and small, tangible and intangible - that are going on in the environment. This awareness can be arrived at through either simple observation or scientific research.

So Napoleon goes on to say, "The knowledge of higher leadership can only be acquired by the study of history [including people, places, strategies, victories, and defeats] and actual experience"[3].

2) Name the Enemy
Psychology has demonstrated that the act of naming something has power and significance. Giving something a name defines it. Naming something indicates it is "this" and not "that." Names can be used to identify and clarify what is potentially true of something or someone. Jesus changed Simon's name to Peter, "the Rock," and so helped him to move out of his inconsistency into a person of solid faith. Or, in a different scene, Adam named the animals in Genesis. While he was creating the world, we're told that God paused after each day to declare that each new thing was "good." When he made human, God said that everything was "very good."

By assigning the enemy a name, you move away from vague generalities and into specific concreteness. Of course, getting specific about what you're target is can be difficult for insecure leaders. That's because in so naming the enemy or clarifying the objective, you risk not overtaking that enemy or achieving that objective. In the same way, the scoreboard in the gym shows everyone who won the game. Rather than face the possibility of defeat, there are many who would rather keep the enemy fuzzy and unnamed (and also they would like to keep the scoreboard off the wall). These are the people who aim at nothing and hit it every time.

3) Rally the Troops
You can't win on your own. Gathering some comrades inevitably requires communication. And communication is intimately linked with inspiration. "The right words can have a [powerful] effect, generating enthusiasm, energy, momentum, and more, while the wrong words can undermine the best intentions and kill initiative on the spot"[4].

We must realize that "Successful leaders communicate very differently from the traditional, abstract approach to communication. ...First, they get attention. Then they stimulate desire, and only then do they reinforce with reasons. When the language of leadership is deployed in this sequence, it can inspire enduring enthusiasm for a cause and spark action to start implementing it"[5].

4) Create Urgency
Things get done when the pain of remaining the same is too much to bear. Change expert, John Kotter, insists that a sense of urgency is, "the first step in a series of actions needed to succeed in changing the world. ...To capitalize on opportunities requires any number of skills and resources. But it all begins with a high enough sense of urgency among a large enough group of people"[6].

Kotter has spent two decades studying individuals and organizations that have successfully created the urgency of which he speaks. He found that they all have two characteristics [7]:
(1) They dramatically present the reality happening outside the walls of the inward-focused group.
This is not just an information dump of random facts and nameless stats. It is, rather, a clear, forceful, passionate presentation that stirs the hearts and imaginations of all who have eyes to see and ears to hear.
(2) They behave with true, disciplined urgency every single day.
This is not simply saying the right words, but, having alignment between words and actions. Every day we live, with every action we take (or don't take), and with every word we speak, we are demonstrating what we truly value. Leaders eat, drink, breath, sleep, and dream their cause. And when that happens, people are drawn to follow suit.

5) Keep Moving Forward
General Patton told his troops: "You keep moving and then the enemy cannot hit you. When you dig a foxhole, you dig your grave. ...Keep walking forward. ...[This] adds to your self-confidence because you feel that you are doing something, and are not sitting, like a duck in a bathtub being shot at"[8].

Jim Collins saw the same thing taking place in the organizations he studied that have stood the test of time. He concluded, "The drive for progress is not a sterile, intellectual recognition that 'progress is healthy in a challenging world' or that 'healthy organizations should change and improve' or that 'we should have goals'; rather, it's a deep, inner, compulsive - almost primal - drive"[9].

In summary:
Attack the problem, attack the enemy, attack the pain, and your will be moving in a positive direction. When that happens, fear dissolves, morale increases, and the enemy is in trouble.

[1] George Lakoff, "Metaphor and War," Vietnam Generation Journal & Newspaper, vol. 3, number 3, November 1, 1991 (accessed 4/20/11).
[2] Jerry Manas, Napoleon on Project Management (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2006), 98.
[3] Ibid., 105.
[4] Stephen Denning, The Secret Language of Leadership (San Francisco: Josey-Bass, 2007), 23.
[5] Ibid., 23, 27.
[6] John Kotter, A Sense of Urgency (Boston: Harvard Business, 2008), 13, 17, italics his.
[7] Ibid., 58.
[8] Alan Axelrod, Patton on Leadership (Paramus, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1999), 58, 60.
[9] Jim Collins and Jerry Porras, Built to Last (New York: Harper Collins, 1997), 82-83.

Related Posts:
Word Association: Leadership
What To Do When You're Stuck


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