Guest Column: The metaphor that launched a $100 bn company: Jaykumar Hariharan, Executive Coach & Speaker

Leaders must convey meaning and have the ability to evoke emotions and connect dots—and metaphors do just that, believes Hariharan

e4m by Jaykumar Hariharan
Updated: Aug 7, 2017 8:11 AM

I pay close attention to my coachees when I ask them to fill the blanks with appropriate metaphors:

Life is ____________

Work is ______________

Family is _____________

Leadership is ______________

These metaphors give me a sense of their underlying beliefs and references in such a powerful and succinct manner. Pretty much like symbols which carry so much of reference around them, the brain doesn’t have to do any heavy lifting in breaking it down. Symbology and the spread of religion is one of the biggest lessons in communication to achieve change. What do you think will invoke greater recognition—the word Christian or an image of the cross, the word Nazi or symbol of a swastika?

What is a metaphor?

Whenever we explain or communicate a concept by likening it to something else, we use a metaphor. They are symbols that can create emotional intensity quicker and more completely than the traditional words we use. Researchers are learning how metaphors affect our thinking. Metaphors we live by, metaphors that affect the way we remember issues or events. Regardless of religious beliefs, all great teachers like Buddha and Jesus used metaphors extensively to explain difficult concepts.

When Jesus reached out to his disciples and asked them to recruit Christians, he explained that the fishermen should now become “fishers of men” thus lucidly explaining what was expected of them. The metaphor “arguments are like war” tells us we should be attacking each other’s positions and defending our weaknesses. If the metaphor is changed to “arguments are like a music orchestra” we would be using this as an opportunity to complement each other. Metaphors condition our thinking and help us in achieving situational awareness. When Steve jobs and Wozniak were designing, they used ideas from Xerox Palo Alto Research Centre. For them, the interface was done by using the desktop as a metaphor.

What happens when we adopt disempowering metaphors?

About 10 years ago, when India was suffering the aftermath of a global recession triggered by the US economy, it was tough going for the media business like other businesses in India. I remember getting into the elevator going down when the president of the business politely enquired where we were off to. In a moment of ill-timed levity I said, “We are going down, just like most businesses of late.” It was only in hindsight that I mentally removed my big foot from my mouth and reflected on the conversation and realised that not only was my quip ill-timed, it also broadcast my state of mind using a disempowering metaphor.

I had the good fortune of listening to Wade Davies, an explorer in residence at the National Geographic society and a world-renowned anthropologist. During a riveting talk, he spoke eloquently about the Peruvian native tribes and their relationship with nature. A kid, raised to believe that a Mountain is an Apu spirit that will direct his destiny would be a profoundly different human being compared to a young kid from Montana raised to believe that a mountain is a pile of rock ready to be mined. The metaphor that defines the relationship between the individual and the natural world in these cases are interesting. This disempowering metaphor is enough to send generations running after the wrong end of the road without thoughts on sustainability and alternative forms of thought and life.

Similarly, In Southern Vietnam, whales and other marine mammals are treated with reverence and worshipped by local people, especially fishermen, who will never hunt them. These beliefs centre around the whale god (Ngu Ong), a spirit that can calm the waves and lead seafarers to safety. Whale carcasses are buried with great respect and are worshipped like any other community God. Contrast this with the whaling culture supported by countries like Japan and Norway!

The metaphor that led to a $100 billion company

The right metaphors can trigger brilliant innovations and set off the thinker on the journey of a lifetime. This is the story of Phil Hampson “Phil” Knight, the chairman and co-founder of Nike Inc. When he was attending a Small Business class in Stanford, he experienced his “aha” moment about entrepreneurship and as a result of that class, he had to create a business plan and his paper was titled “Can Japanese sports shoes do to German sports shoes what Japanese cameras did to German cameras?”

This metaphor resulted in him stopping over at Kobe, Japan where he discovered the Tiger Brand Running shoes manufactured by Onitsuka Co. He was impressed and secured the distribution rights for the western United States and a legend was born.

Leaders must convey meaning and have the ability to evoke emotions and connect dots and metaphors do just that. Aristotle said, “The most important thing by far is to have a command of metaphor.” He added, “For this is the only one that cannot be learned from anyone else, and is a sign of natural genius, as to be good at metaphor is to perceive resemblances. It gives clarity, charm and distinction to style.” Metaphors say things in terms of something else. They create associations and links between things. The best metaphors awaken the senses by evoking images and emotions in the audience. They define things in fresh new ways. They create a mini-story in a sentence. They are remembered long after facts are forgotten. They are sticky. Metaphor has transformational power by creating a bridge between previously unconnected things.

John Clancy, in his book, The Invisible Powers: The Language of Business, found that the six most commonly used metaphors are journey, machine, organism, war, game and society. When CXO storytellers communicate, they are setting up a narrative that will stand the test of meaning six levels down and in the arsenal of sticky ideas, the metaphor is the ace up their sleeves!

The author is an Executive Coach and Speaker.

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are solely those of the author and do not in any way represent the views of

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