My rationale for the inner work of Servant-Leadership is also concerned with the metaphors we use. Each person, each relationship (think: team, department, etc.) and each organized group of three or more folks emerges core metaphors. These metaphors determine the path(s) chosen. As a culture our society has also integrated metaphors. In organizations, conflicts emerge when there is a clash of metaphors or when a major metaphor held by an individual is not in alignment with a major relational (think: team, for example) metaphor or with a major organizational metaphor.
With the Industrial Revolution our society integrated a mechanical metaphor – this metaphor is still alive and well in a number of organizations. The organization is a machine or is a clock and employees are ‘cogs’ in the machine or ‘wheels’ or ‘springs’ in the clock. We have also integrated both a ‘war’ and a ‘sports’ metaphor into our society. These are so deeply ingrained that we freely interchange them and yet generally folks know what we are talking about. We often, for example, describe war using a sports metaphor and we describe a sporting event using a war metaphor.
Within the past fifty years our society has integrated what seems to be today’s primary metaphor: the banking metaphor. Organizations have integrated these metaphors. Employees are ‘cogs’ in the corporate machine (this metaphor is not nearly as powerful as it was sixty years ago) or employees, are ‘team players’ or our organization must destroy the other organization’s reputation. The ‘banking metaphor’ is the most powerful organizational metaphor today: people are assets, commodities, resources, investments, etc.
There are other metaphors available to us and there are a few organizations that continue to strive to live into and out of these. At times Greenleaf uses a ‘community’ metaphor (the mechanical, war-sports, and banking metaphors are non-organic metaphors and so people are, at best, cyborgs – people are not fully human beings nor are teams nor is the organization). ‘Communities’ are rooted in trust, in binding covenants and they are committed to the growth, development and health of the individual, the relationships and the organization (the organization is ‘alive’ for it is simply individuals and relationships writ large). Greenleaf also uses a ‘Garden Metaphor.’ This is a paradoxical metaphor: The individual, the relationship and the organization are BOTH the gardener (the ones entrusted with the garden) and the garden itself.
Gentle Reader, how many organizations do you know that espouse ‘being human’ and yet ‘live’ an integrated mechanical, sports-war or banking metaphor? The tensions that exist are captured (talk about a war metaphor) in phrases like: Our employees (human beings) are our most important resources (inorganic, banking metaphor). If you are not fully human ‘I’ (the organization, in this case) can guilt-free ‘down-size you,’ or ‘re-engineer your department’ or ‘free up some assets.’
I believe it is important for the individual, the various relationships (i.e. teams, departments, etc.) and the organization to identify and name the metaphors that determine the path(s) they choose. Metaphors are more than literary devices. Metaphors determine our reality. Here is a poem I wrote many years ago:
The Metaphors we use
The Words we infuse
The Questions we muse
The Paths we choose!