Using a metaphor to describe educational leadership is not necessarily a new idea. Most of us can recall comparing school leaders to an orchestra conductor, a gardener or a parent in our university graduate classes.
A metaphor, aptly stated, is powerful. Novelist Stephen King says that metaphors enable us to “see an old thing in a new and vivid way.” We use metaphors to process the unfamiliar. A well-placed metaphor enables us to connect and look at, and make sense of, new information and experiences with something familiar. Researchers Maguire and Braun (2019) tell us that metaphors can offer a new way of thinking about leadership and that school leaders in particular use metaphors to paint a story as they process and envision changing and anxious times.
If true, the stories this year will be interesting.
In a 2018 study about how principals made sense of their roles during a period of significant education reform in Israel, researchers invited principals to use metaphors to describe their leadership role as they worked to balance multiple and ever-changing external demands with their personal and the school’s internal goals and commitments. Their stories, or metaphors, helped them to navigate a time of “profound disruption” to their role and their work.
The researchers found that sense making was a key leadership capability and that principals came up with some very creative metaphors to make sense of unfamiliar situations and complex concepts. For the principals, these “symbolically encoded representations” created new ways of seeing and interpreting reality and subsequently influenced their leadership actions/responses.
The study found that the leadership metaphors emerged across three themes: the leader’s role, their work and their relationship with teachers. As you imagine and reflect on your own role, your work and your relationships, some of their images may resonate and perhaps bring a smile.
- A marionette or puppet – feeling little or no control as external bodies and agencies determine priorities and make decisions.
- A Swiss watch – surrounded by efficiencies and timelines…tick tock…tick tock….
- An octopus – attempting to manage multiple tasks simultaneously; not dropping the ball.
- A key – opening doors, envisioning new opportunities and ways of doing things.
- A magician – transforming the demands of reality into something that just might work for the school.
- The punk rock star – challenging and defying established assumptions, priorities and power dynamics.
- A pressure valve – invaluable for letting off steam and regaining equilibrium.
- A spider – constantly spinning a web, creating strong connections that support students, the school and the community.
- An air traffic controller – reacting quickly, responsible for making critical decisions on the spot.
- A Cheshire cat – a deliberate, crafty and skilled communicator knowing when to appear and when to disappear, when to direct and when to question or empower.
- A touchstone – the standard-bearer and institutional and moral anchor for the school community.
Metaphors enable us to not only link our current context, be it unknown or uncertain, to something grounded in the familiar, but also to condense this reality to a fleeting image of something tangible–reflecting our values and personal beliefs about our role, our work and our relationships.
Metaphors are also personal and enable us to reflect.
Your turn – what’s your story?