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Metaphors and Management Wisdom

Last month I wrote about a story involving an intimidating dragon and a knight who approached the situation from a different viewpoint, and that story got me thinking about the sayings that I seem to have accumulated for management wisdom. Oddly enough, they all involve animals.

You probably have a few metaphors like these that you use, such as, “putting lipstick on a pig,” or “ignoring the elephant in the room,” or “getting your ducks in a row.” Most people hear these metaphors, smile, and know what the speaker means. These phrases allude to the fact that the problem is just made to look better rather than actually fixed, or that the real problem is being ignored, or that they need to get their efforts aligned (or prepare to do something). These metaphors are great ways to make information memorable and can be a shortcut for reminding people about important principles. They are a type of story with all the benefits of storytelling.

Lessons in leadership

My favorite metaphor for management wisdom is Dinosaurs are easier to kill when they are small. I picked this one up from Wally Bock of the Three Star Leadership blog. I use it to remind people (and myself) that those minor issues, particularly people issues, that you might want to overlook in hopes they go away, often grow to be much more significant problems which are then much harder to address. It is much wiser to directly address the issue when it is small.

For instance, you notice a trend that an employee is coming in late on certain days or regularly calling out sick on the same day each month. That’s the time to ask what is going on and see if you can together address the issue while it is just beginning to be a pattern of behavior. If I allow the behavior to continue, the employee might start coming in later and later on more days or calling out more often. They, at least unconsciously, think, “no one has said anything about what I’m doing, so it must be okay.” If I let the behavior continue and address it much later, an employee may feel I am being unfair since I’ve been allowing the behavior up until then. That makes it a much harder issue to address. Just like dinosaurs are easier to kill when they are small, patterns of behavior are easier to solve when you first notice them.

Another favorite saying of mine has to do with a Mark Twain quote, “If it’s your job to eat a frog, it’s best to do it first thing in the morning. And if it’s your job to eat two frogs, it’s best to eat the biggest one first.” The frog is the biggest task you have to do or the task you most don’t want to do. Get it done and the rest of the day is much more pleasant. If you leave it for later, it casts a cloud over the rest of your day. So, “Eat the frog!” has come to mean, buckle down and get it out of the way. That is such a strong image (especially if I project a big ugly bullfrog on the screen while talking about procrastination and prioritizing tasks) and people have such a gut reaction to eating frogs, that it sticks with everyone. At one company particularly, months after the training, I heard one front-line supervisor telling another to “Eat the frog!” We all knew what she meant right away.

Another nugget of management wisdom comes from penguins and polar bears. This one I picked up from Dan McCarthy in his Great Leadership blog, and he picked it up from university professor Jim Clawson. Overall, penguins have a high energy level and move around quite a bit while polar bears, who easily overheat when running on the ice, tend to have a much lower energy level. The analogy helps me think about my own energy levels and also about my direct reports’ energy levels. Am I a penguin or a polar bear? What can I do to balance out my energy levels and raise my direct reports’ energy levels? Am I doing things that take energy away from them? Where can I direct other people’s energy to make it productive and to encourage maintenance? Whenever I think of penguins and polar bears, energy levels and helping people have a positive outlook and attitude – starting with me – comes to mind.

That’s what's in my current arsenal of management wisdom – Help the dragon, kill the dinosaur when it’s small, eat the frog, and encourage penguins. It’s a rather colorful collection, and very vivid. These types of metaphors can also help create a shared culture at work when they become meaningful shortcuts to things that are valued (such as thinking outside of the box, dealing with issues directly, not procrastinating, and fostering positive outlooks and attitudes). Do you have a favorite metaphor (and it doesn’t have to involve animals!) that you fall back on again and again? Please share it in the comments.