Metaphors we lead by: Book Review

Metaphors we lead by, edited by Mats Alvesson and Andre Spicer, Routledge, 2011, 222pp
Reviewed by Tudor Rickards

Leadership is often associated with ambiguities and with a bias towards the heroic individual of high moral standards. This book offers a plausible explanation of these ambiguities from a critical theory perspective

One of the quests of management authors is to write a text that works for practicing managers and for business researchers. This is one of the few books which achieve that goal.

The metaphors we lead by

As its title suggests, Metaphors we lead by examines leadership through a series of metaphors as perspectives or maps. These were derived from investigations carried out by teams of researchers from Lund University Sweden. Each team provides one specific metaphor, which labels patterns of behaviour likely to be familiar to leadership practitioners and researchers. We find the commander figure of classical theory engaged in acts of direction and control. Then there is the saint (servant leader?); the buddy (mentor); the gardener (coach?); the cyborg (super-hero as tireless as a machine) and the bully (leadership’s dark secret).

Ways of seeing

The metaphors offer ‘ways of seeing’ in a way echoing the earlier influential book on images of organization by Gareth Morgan. The metaphors are of interest, as understanding leadership from various perspectives.

The conceptual framework

Leadership researchers will also find interest in its conceptual framework offered by editors Alvesson and Spicer. The framework proposes that perspectives of leadership differ within three inter-related domains, that of leaders, followers, and researchers/observers. It offers understanding into the nature of the ambiguities of leadership including its multitude of definitions. It is through their mutual creation of their organizational realities that images of organization and develop.

The framework from a critical perspective

One innovative aspect of the book for many managers will be its linking with a critical theoretical perspective. The editors seek to avoid “the uncritical celebration of leadership [and] to heroic individual” [p2]. Critical theory is itself a complex set of philosophic ideas. As a starting point consistent with this book, we might refer to an earlier work Professor Alvesson (together with another distinguished critical theorist):

“The capacity of human beings to reflect and think critically makes it possible to question and challenge mainstream management theory and practice (Alvesson & Wilmott 1996: 40)”.

This perspective is influential among researchers of leadership although one that is less familiar with many managers, who take for granted what is broadly a rational economic model of human behaviour. This derive from the classical approach to management (managerialism), which feeds into and draws on managerial ideas and actions. From it, we have the metaphor of the leader as commander, experienced in the means of command and control, and acting under conditions of rationality, and drawing on rational expectations to explain and understand human behaviours.

The new leadership ideas of the 1980s popularised the management of meaning. Symbolic leadership was offered as an alternative to the strictly managerialist approach. To be sure, symbolic leadership can be seen as retaining aspects of the heroic (and saintly) leader. However, as Alvesson and Spicer point out, the approach is dominated by ‘ a monologic’ view (a leader’s perspective). They proposes a ‘dialogic’ one in which the interplay between leaders and subordinates is more important than how a leader influences the meanings which followers develop of organisational duties and rights.

Bridging the gap

It is a matter of personal regret that I have witnessed ‘paradigm wars’ between colleagues who take a critical perspective and those who take a more traditional functionalist view of business. This book offers promise in helping bridge that gap to some degree. It offers possiblities to leaders and subordinates of considering new ‘ways of seeing’ leadership, particularly in its treatment within Business Schools around the world.


Alvesson M., & Spicer, A., (2011) Metaphors we lead by, Oxford: Routledge
Alvesson, M., & Wilmott, H., (1996), Making sense of management, London: Sage
Morgan, G., (1986) Images of organization, Newbury Park, Ca.: Sage

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