Metaphors Gone Wild: Bridges and Leadership

An ancient Scottish proverb asserts, “Whoso would be a leader must also be a bridge.” The leader often find himself in a position of bridging or uniting seemingly contradictory thoughts. Of elucidating organizational oxymorons. Of bringing together opposing camps or warring factions.

Just as Janus was able to bridge two years–the one just passed and the one just about to begin–so, too will the effective leader rely on the past but not live in it. She will also project to the future. In a sense, she has her feet in two worlds–the past and the future. She straddles both, learning from one and preparing for the other.


“The main dangers in this life,” asserted Nancy Astor, the first woman to serve in England’s Parliament, “are the people who want to change everything-or nothing.” There are undeniable dangers in the extremes. As a general rule, a moderate, middle-of- the-road approach to leadership works best. Such an approach acknowledges that much of what managers are already doing is exactly what they should be doing.

But if managers are doing what they were doing five years ago, they simply aren’t optimizing their managerial talents. The pace of change today demands a change of pace. And those in leadership positions must do more than just maintain the existing operation. They have to bring improvement to it on a regular basis.

The skills that serve managers well today cannot, in toto, serve them well five years hence. There must be continuous improvement, in graduate increments–what the Japanese refer to as “kaizen.”


As a leader in your organization, you’ll need to urge a paradoxical change-within-stasis style. Encourage members of your staff to determine core values and maintain fidelity to them. At the same time, have them examine processes. Where improvement is needed, they have to make it.

You can encourage programs of continuous learning, of continuous improvement within the organization. You can help effect positive change. But only if the programs you endorse are accompanied by programs of applications. Quite simply, theory must be put into practice. The best practitioners of management theory know this. They believe this. They live this on a daily basis. If the application of new knowledge is already something your colleagues are doing on a daily basis, congratulate them.

If your co-workers, though, are not used to learning and experimenting, you can help them acquire new knowledge and use it within the workplace. Use it to facilitate the transition between ideas and expertise.


To lead is to effect positive change. To manage is to maintain the smooth operation of existing procedures. Remaining balanced between these two needs may lead to “supervisory schizophrenia.” But we live in an age of paradox, when doing more with less has been ingrained into our psyche.

1. Doing “more with less” is an organizational oxymoron. What additional contradictions are supervisors expected to deal with? If you haven’t already realized or acknowledged it, supervision is a tough job. Many qualified individuals–when they compare the additional responsibility, stress, learning, time, and exposure supervision requires, to the amount of additional money they will earn–decide supervision is not for them. If you have decided career advancement is important to you, if you’d like to take on a leadership role, and if you are interested enough to continuously improve your skills, you are to be commended. All companies need good managers and good managers need courage.

2. How would you interpret this pronouncement from Jack Welch, CEO of GE: “Don’t manage! Lead!”?

3. Or this: “Speed, simplicity, self-confidence”?

4. What have you learned from the worst supervisor you have ever known or known about? How can you use that knowledge as a tool for effective supervision?

5. On his deathbed, Hubert Humphrey spoke to Jesse Jackson about knowing one’s own irreducible essence. When all else is stripped away, what is it that defines the person, the organization, the country? What are the incontrovertible truths related to your work, your company, your life?


To move from the present to an improved future means dealing with opposites, or change, at the very least. And, as statesman John Foster Dulles notes, if you are simply maintaining the status quo, your status as a leader is slipping: “The measure of success is not whether you have a tough problem to deal with, but whether it is the same problem you had last year.”