The 'Pitch' For A New Collaborative Leadership Metaphor (And Model)

What's Your Team's Metaphor or Model for Innovating?


What’s Your Team’s Metaphor?

We have all used metaphors to help explain things, including understanding the nature of change. For many, this includes the use of the sports metaphor. American football, for example, has been frequently used to explain how business works, what effective leadership looks like and how employees are expected to perform. Its metaphor has been embedded in American business culture for over 70 years, reinforcing values that promote 'individual' performance over team performance. However, in the Age of Collaboration, more and more work is done by teams…and that trend is only going to continue. That means football’s metaphor is no longer adequate.

The 'Pitch' for a New Metaphor (and Model)

So, what’s a new metaphor that can be used by people and organizations to help them acclimate to the realities of today’s modern workplace where managing change at a dizzying pace is the new norm, calling for more agility on the part of individuals and collaboration on the part of teams?

When you look at today’s highly competitive global business world, it continues to look like the global game of soccer. This is a world where technology continues to enable organizations to be more responsive to customers. Technology also helps empower employees on the front line (i.e., playing field) to make decisions, to take risks and to manage constant change. Here, the network (or pitch used in soccer to describe the playing field) has replaced the traditional functional hierarchy, with people and teams collaborating on projects, customer engagements, and new products. This may include 'collaborating to innovate' in a variety of applications!

In my book, The Collaborator: Discover Soccer as a Metaphor for Global Business Leadership, I describe soccer as the best example of a sport with teams charged to perform their work under changing conditions. Played at its highest level, the best soccer teams in the world succeed by applying a mindset that recognizes a mutual dependency (i.e., interdependency) between players on the field described as genuine collaborative teamwork. This is why soccer works best in today’s global business world where, innovation, for example, is highly dependent on teams practicing genuine collaborative teamwork!

Soccer’s metaphor (and model) can be leveraged in the global workplace for improving team effectiveness.

Change the Metaphors We Live By

It goes without saying that we operate in a metaphorical world. They are everywhere…and it’s very hard to change the metaphors we live by. However, new metaphors have the power to create a new reality, write George Lakoff & Mark Johnson in their book, Metaphors We Live By (The University of Chicago, 1980). This can begin to happen when we start to comprehend our experience in terms of a metaphor, and it becomes a deeper reality when we begin to act on it.

Again, we have been using American football’s metaphor, but must now look to change-out this metaphor to soccer’s metaphor to help drive the change needed to rewrite the rules for the digital age. Organizations are looking to reinvent their leadership models to help people deal with the changing workplace. Look around…all one needs to do is read report after report about the present state of the American workplace (where engagement levels continue to drop) – and the present state of leadership effectiveness (where most employees have little faith in their leadership). Examples include Deloitte’s 2017 Human Capital Trends report and Gallup’s 2017 State of the American Workplace report.

The reality is that we are using outdated metaphors to help people understand today’s workplace. If organizations are serious about making changes that match up with the modern workplace, new metaphors need to be introduced to help people comprehend their experience in ways that are productive (i.e., allowing people to act on it…). Soccer’s metaphor works best for helping organizations achieve the kind of transformational change(s) needed to match-up with tomorrow’s challenges!

When I wrote The Collaborator in 2007, people told me that I was twenty years too early for soccer’s metaphor to be accepted by people and the mainstream media. Here we are ten years later and nothing has really changed in my thinking about using soccer’s metaphor – except for the fact there is now more urgency to address the challenges associated with managing change! Again, look at the nature of global business today.

Connecting the Dots

Changing demographics in the United States – along with the continued growth of soccer in the United States at all levels over the past ten years now makes soccer a game that is becoming more pervasive in everyday life. The growth of Major League Soccer (MLS) is just one example of how the game has grown in the United States and how it’s been embraced by people and mainstream media. With that said, the critical mass needed to promote soccer’s metaphor in the United States is present! Note, while most metaphors evolve in our culture over a long period, write George Lakoff & Mark Johnson, many are imposed upon us by people in power – political leaders, religious leaders, business leaders, advertisers, the media, etc.

Perhaps we have an idea whose time has come!

One More Global Dot to Connect

Soccer’s metaphor represents a natural opportunity for organizations in the United States to link-up with their global partners for understanding what genuine team collaboration really looks like on the business field. After all, we’re talking about linking or applying a global game to a global business world.

It’s application also helps people working across cultures negotiate meaning, write George Lakoff & Mark Johnson, where, metaphorical imagination is a crucial skill in creating rapport and in communicating the nature of the unshared experience.

Overcoming Team Development’s Challenge

Why has team development (i.e., collaboration) in the United States been an on-going challenge in organizations?

Again, a big part of the answer is tied to the metaphors used in the past to describe what leadership looks like and how employees are expected to perform. Individual performance has been the dominant message conveyed in business – via metaphor – since the early nineteenth century, appropriate to the mass production world of work. Before that, metaphors were used to promote the image of the rugged individual that has dominated the American way since the beginning.

Because of that messaging over time, most people in today’s workplace don’t function with a mindset that supports team collaboration. The typical mindset supports group work that is often described as cooperating or coordinating with others. Obviously that description is too limiting and is a product of a culture whose values favor individual responsibility and performance over any form of groups, whether it be a team or otherwise, wrote Jon Katzenbach and Douglas Smith back in 1992, in their best-selling book, The Wisdom of Teams (HBR Press).

Alternative mindsets must be learned – in the context of developing people on teams to practice genuine collaborative teamwork. Developing mindset before skillset is critical! Once developed, mindset helps shape decisions regarding competencies focused on collaboration – and ultimately behaviors…leading to improved team effectiveness. Note, in 2016, The Collaboration Game™ training program was launched to help people accomplish this task.


As organizations look to the future, they are increasingly caught in the unique nexus of three accelerating universal changes: technology, complexity, and global uncertainty. This shifting context demands a collaborative mindset as a necessary perspective for managing change across these three areas. The future requires people who understand that only through collaboration will they gain the necessary knowledge and commitment to solve complex problems presented by these changes. Teams and organizations who succeed recognize the absolute need to involve ALL relevant stakeholders, both external and internal, in decision making. They will need to constantly collaborate.

Soccer’s metaphor (and model) can be leveraged in the global workplace for effectively managing change across these three areas. 


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