Metaphors are another way to see how our conscious or unconscious beliefs shape our thinking and behavior. Here are some ways leadership metaphors that fit the 21st century.

Wireless Leadership

Some of us remember having phones plugged into a wall or a time when computers needed to be linked with a cord to work. These images reflect a kind of leadership we associate with command and control. People receiving a directive had to be attached to their leader to know what to do.

Today, our phones and computers are part of a wireless network and they don’t need to be “plugged in” to be used or be useful. Wireless technology allows anyone to connect anytime, to anywhere. Being wireless raises images of millions of users initiating action and making decisions. Wireless leadership helps us imagine an organization where staff members make decisions and initiate actions that serve the whole organization without being directed every step of the way by positional leaders.

They are not connected to positional leaders in a traditional way and positional leaders depend on staff members to be able to self-organize around their work. It assumes an equitable or collaborative sense of relationship rather than a demarcation or rank ordering between leaders and followers.

Distributive leadership is an example of leadership that reflect the dynamics of a wireless metaphor. Leadership is distributed throughout all levels of the organization. If we reimagined leadership using a wireless metaphor, we would expand our beliefs to see that leadership can be “unplugged” from positional leadership and we would begin to look for leadership behavior throughout the organization. Finally, we would reflect on how to manifest this kind of wireless leadership in our organizations.

Network Leadership

Networked Leadership

Hierarchical leadership recalls a top-down, pyramid image filled with managers and unskilled labor. The managers have a positional authority and organizational leaders are assumed to also be managers. A new metaphor for leadership is networks.

A networked metaphor assumes that an organization is filled with connections and open systems of influence. It is primarily a metaphor for relationships, influencing, learning, and new ways of organizing that are based on connectivity from any place to anyone. In a networked metaphor, positional authority gives way to authentic engagement with bottom-up innovation and self-organization working with top-down strategic direction and alignment. Organizations whose competitive edge is driven by knowledge and innovation would do well to strengthen their networked leadership. Software companies tend to have these networked cultures, in part, because innovation and learning flow through relationships.

Living System

Living System Leadership

The living systems metaphor recognizes humans, not as cogs, but as living entities that are filled with emotion, consciousness, and complexities. Human beings make up organizations; therefore, organizations are also living systems. They are “alive” and the dynamics of organizations are more like those we see in nature than those we see in machines. If we take the idea of organizations as living systems to the next level, we would be asking “what is my organization becoming?” and “how can I help my organization continue to evolve and discover its purpose?”

The traditional fusion of ego and a positional leader reflects the thinking that an organization only exists to serve the individual leader and their wants or needs. The shift to thinking of organizations as alive with a kind of consciousness and will of its own has huge implications for our thinking and our leadership behavior.

New Leadership Thinking

Building on these new metaphors, new leadership questions arise. Below is a table that reframes the principle leadership question, strategies, and challenges based in the emergent and traditional systems frameworks.

New Questions for 21st Century Leadership

Principles and Assumptions based on Networked, Nature-Based and Biological Paradigms with a living system framework.

Principles and Assumptions based on Industrial, mechanistic bureaucratic systems and Newtonian Physics

Leadership Question: What can I unleash?

  • Strategy: unleash energy and talent
  • Flows from the assumption that things are unpredictable and dynamic and that there are renewable and sustainable energy sources that are currently untapped in the organization

Leadership Question: What do I need to control?

  • Strategy: control energy and talent
  • Flows from the assumption that things are predictable and controllable.

Leadership Questions:  What interactions will make this work? What is the largest possibility in this situation?

  • Strategy: Connect and integrate the organization and its external environment.  Work with the flow of the system to design sustainable change.
  • Flows from the assumptions that things are interconnected and holographic.

Leadership Questions:  Who can make this work?  What are the boundaries?

  • Strategy: Reinforce the boundaries of the system.  Find the person in authority that can make change happen.
  • Flows from the assumption that things are independent and separated i.e. a closed system where variables can be known and controlled

Leadership Question: How do I welcome resistance?

  • Strategy: Resistance is incorporated and welcomed as diversity of perspective/opinions that enhances the quality of decision making.
  • Flows from the assumptions that opposition is necessary for understanding and achieving wholeness.

Leadership Question: How do I avoid resistance?

  • Strategy: Resistance is eliminated, overcome, or shut down.
  • Flows from the assumption that opposition splits and any conflict or tension hinders productivity.

Leadership Question: How do I influence the field (or culture)?

  • Strategy: Keep the organization in motion.  Foster a culture that is constantly evolving, learning, and experimenting.
  • Flows from the assumption that things are complex, mutually shaping, and dynamic. An organization needs to adapt to thrive and a body in motion tends to stay in motion.

Leadership Question: How do I influence individual actions?

  • Strategy: Build organization structures and processes that control individual behavior and keep the organization in a stable and predictable state.
  • Flows from the assumption that things are simple and static.  A body at rest tends to stay at rest.

Leadership Question: How can I transform energy? How do I use the energy of the larger systems to help me design sustainable change?

  • Strategy: Design change in a way that is sustainable and once in place does not require additional resources
  • Flows from the assumption that things are made up of mostly space and are constantly dynamic and every organization has an excess of energy that is not currently tapped or that is wasted on processes or structures that don’t help the organization achieve its highest potential

Leadership question: How can I create change?

  • Strategy: Drive change through the system. Allocate resources and attention to insure the change stays in place
  • Flows from the assumption that things are solid and static and require energy to shift the status quo and to keep the new status quo in place. Also flows from the assumption that we don’t need to conserve resources or create sustainable change

The power of creating and testing new metaphors for something we are interested is that it takes our thinking into new directions. Thinking of leadership as wireless, networked, and a living dynamic causes us to rethink and see how traditional leadership metaphors have shaped the way we lead and the assumptions we make about our organizations.

Nature is designed to operate as a wireless, networked, living system. Shifting our metaphor causes us to look nature for leadership lessons for today’s world.


Dr. Kathleen E. Allen writes a blog on leadership and organizations that describes a new paradigm of leadership that is based in lessons from nature and living systems. She is the author of Leading from the Roots: Nature Inspired Leadership Lessons for Today’s World (available for purchase September 4, 2018) and President of Allen and Associates, a consulting firm that specializes in leadership, innovation, and organizational change. You can sign up for her blog on her website: