A Brief History of Leadership Metaphor Explorer™ (VIDEO)

This video from a LME session in Second Life (AMI Conference, 2008, University of the Pacific) is fun and interesting. The virtual interactive world of Second Life uses the digital versions of the cards as huge posters on the walls.

In this prototype version the labels were still hand drawn. People and strange animals fly through the air. A serious dialogue on innovation ensued! Virtual meeting spaces can be effective for leadership development and coaching, weaving rich webs of resources with virtual social presence and interaction.

Now let’s go back further still in the history and origins of Leadership Metaphor Explorer.


Metaphors (including analogies) are tools for creative thinkers of any kind—artists, scientists, engineers, managers, and leaders— to understand and change the world. Leadership Metaphor Explorer engages people in playful yet deeply serious conversations about developing leadership and culture.

Around 1992 Dr. Robert Burkhart and David Magellan Horth developed a personal development process called Root Metaphor. Root Metaphors are core personal metaphors which define how we approach life and work.

One of those for me is my second name Magellan. Imagine how someone lives his life believing he descended from the first person who circumnavigated the world. The Root Metaphor exercise developed by Burkhart and myself was featured in CCL’s Leading Creatively program. I often describe the activity as a right brain goal setting activity. Participants typically discovered and developed their own personal Root Metaphor that became a resource for their continuing leadership journey.

In our book The Leader’s Edge we wrote about images and metaphors as tools for thinking, being, and acting in a complex world. Visual Explorer was our first dialogue tool based in images and metaphors. We introduced the idea of “mediated” dialogue, or making meaning together by “putting something in the middle” of the conversation (Palus & Drath, 2001). Images, we learned, are especially effective for mediated dialogue.

In the CCL program called Navigating Complex Challenges, Andre Martin, David Horth, Ancella Livers and others used a set of 49 verbal metaphors, in words but without images, to enhance classroom dialogue about options for navigating complexity. It worked! But the words by themselves seemed flat.

David recruited graphic facilitator and strategy guru Bruce Flye at East Carolina University to draw images for the metaphors. Bruce met David when they were co-facilitating the Crisis Leadership Forum hosted by CCL to examine the essentials for leadership in a crisis such as the New Orleans Katrina disaster. Bruce is a fine graphic facilitator.

I loved his interpretations of people’s stories in that forum and loved his artwork. I think my first conversation with him about his involvement with Leadership Metaphor Explorer started something like this: ‘Bruce, I love your artwork. If I gave you a series of metaphors, could you have a go at interpreting each metaphor?’

By going back and forth between ideas and drawings we further extended the set across the spectrum of dependent, independent, and interdependent metaphors (as coded by an expert panel). By means of rapid prototyping we provided beta LME decks for testing to faculty around CCL, especially working with Steadman Harrison and Lyndon Rego in the Leadership Beyond Boundaries initiative with diverse and global constituencies for leadership development and social change in Africa, Asia, the Middle East and the USA.

General Richard L. Hughes tested the LME cards as part of a culture survey at the U.S. Air Force Academy, and describes them in his leadership textbook. Later they were successfully used in boundary spanning work with U.S. Forces and the Department of State in Iraq. Several publications show LME has been further applied to boundary spanning and  interdependent leadership (Hughes et al., 2011; Palus, McGuire & Ernst, 2011).

>>More at the Origins of Leadership Metaphor Explorer

David Magellan Horth
Charles J. Palus
The Center for Creative Leadership

About Charles J. Palus & David Magellan Horth

Charles J. Palus & David Magellan Horth are Senior Fellows at the Center for Creative Leadership. Many thanks to Steadman Harrison III, CEO of GO Innovation.com, and Senior Associate for the Center for Creative Leadership.
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