Stop Giving Answers to the Test – Guiding Metaphors in Leadership

We would like to share an excerpt and case study from our best-selling book “How Leaders Improve” that illustrates the concept we at #AvionConsulting refer to as a “guiding metaphor” that leaders can constantly refer to in order to help them improve.

A specific conversation with one of our most improved leaders heavily influenced the decision to write this book.  This leader was going through one of the high-potential leadership development programs offered by our firm, and the conversation was the last between this leader and his leadership coach (who is also one of the co-authors of this book), at the very end of the nine-month program.

During this conversation, the coach asked some questions about what the leader thought accounted for his significant improvement.  At some point the leader said, “I just needed to learn to stop giving people the answers to the test.”  Of course, this was a metaphor. The leader was not literally giving people answers to some test.  There were no answers to a test!  There was no test!

After the leader had used the “test” metaphor two or three times during the conversation, the coach asked him to elaborate on what he meant by “not giving people answers to the test.”  His reply was essentially that his original 360-degree feedback indicated that his natural leadership style was simply to tell people what he thought they should do when confronted with some sort of problem or challenge.  This made him come across, to some at least, as an overly directive leader.

This approach actually seemed to be working quite well for this leader, at least on one level.  The leader was widely respected, as evidenced by his extremely good feedback.  And, in fact, as of this writing he has been identified as the leading internal candidate to move into the most senior position in his function when his manager retires.   But he knew that his approach was less than optimal.  On one hand, he was smart and experienced and had strong integrity, so his answers to challenges faced within his organization tended to be very sound and well received answers.

On the other hand, his natural approach – giving people the answers to the test – tended not to foster the sort of critical thinking, problem-solving, and independence that he needed from those who reported to him (who themselves were in leadership roles).  So, he made this his central issue.

But, beyond that, he came up with a metaphor that represented what he needed to work on.  And then, when he was interacting with a direct report (or anyone else, for that matter) regarding some business challenge, the metaphor would come back to him and help him remember what he was working on.  We suspect that there were many times when he had the thought, “Wait, I need to be careful not to just give him/her the answers to the test.”  When this happened, he would then change his approach.  For example, he would ask a good question (such as, “What do you think our options are?”) instead of just providing whatever guidance came to mind.

In other words, by keeping this metaphor in mind day-to-day he avoided always just “giving people the answers to the test.”  And after several months of working on this central issue, keeping this metaphor constantly in mind, his already excellent 360-degree feedback was even better – dramatically better.

We found that many of our most improved leaders had some sort of key metaphor that represented one’s central issue, and which was an easy and memorable point of reference.  Such metaphors provided these leaders with a high degree of guidance about how to act in a more effective manner, and they did so in a way that was condensed and personally meaningful.  Hence, we have chosen the term ‘guiding metaphor’ to get at this insight.”

Do you have a “guiding metaphor” that you use to check in with your leadership style and its effectiveness? We look forward to your feedback and invite you to join our newsletter for further discussion at

August 22, 2019