Visual and verbal literacy: Skills for contemporary leadership

David Magellan Horth provides this field report on using Leadership Metaphor Explorer (LME) and Visual Explorer (VE) to address skills for contemporary leadership.

The following design was used successful at the Library Leadership and Management Association LLAMA (a Division of the American Library Association – ALA at the LLAMA President’s meeting June 2008 in Annaheim, CA. I was expecting about 10 people but more like 300 people came so I had to think quickly on my feet.


  • Introduction
  • Leadership Metaphor Exercise
  • Presentation on leadership culture stage development
  • Presentation of the Sense Making Loop for complex challenges
  • Visual Explorer Exercise
  • Concluding remarks


1. My session was called “Visual and verbal literacy: Skills for contemporary leadership”

2. I put on one LME Card and one VE Card face down on each chair, randomly distributed.

3a. I opened the session with the question: How does the metaphor you have been assigned describe leadership in your organization in any one of these ways:

  • in the past?
  • your organization at its worst?
  • how leadership is practiced currently?
  • how leadership is when your organization is at its best?
  • how you would like leadership to be in the future?
  • how leadership needs to be in order to resolve your most pressing leadership challenges?

3b. Discuss with your neighbors

4. People were then invited to come to the microphone with the card they had been assigned. The microphone had been set up in the center aisle to share what they had found. This was very rich. About 7 people came forward before I moved on to the next part of the session. They shared both the metaphor and insights they had gained.

5. I then did a presentation about how we think leadership will look like in the future using:

Honorable Captains to illustrate dependent leadership
rous Explorers to illustrate independent leadership
Leaderless Orchestra to illustrate interdependent leadership

6. I then presented the Sense Making Loop used as a response to complex challenges.

7. There was a VE image at each seat. I asked them to think of a complex challenge in their organization. How does the visual image you have been assigned describe your complex challenge?

8. Again I had people come up to the microphone to share insights on the process and what they learned.

One woman chose the snails eye view of trees as a metaphor for appreciating diversity.

“Lying on my back looking up at the trees and seeing how beautiful they are and how different they are in height. If I appreciate the beauty in them, they will in turn appreciate the beauty in me.”

I rounded things off by reciting a verse from T.S. Eliot, East Coker, to close.

In order to arrive there,
To arrive where you are, to get from where you are not,
You must go by a way wherein there is no ecstasy.
In order to arrive at what you do not know
You must go by a way which is the way of ignorance.
In order to possess what you do not possess
You must go by the way of dispossession.
In order to arrive at what you are not
You must go through the way in which you are not.
And what you do not know is the only thing you know
And what you own is what you do not own
And where you are is where you are not.

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, and Senior Associate for the Center for Creative Leadership.
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