Leadership metaphors from the World Open Space

wosonos2012A few weeks ago I joined in with the World Open Space on Open Space (WOSonOS) 2012 here in London.  People came from all over the world to Stoke Newington Town Hall in North London for three days of Open Space activity – about using Open Space.  Open Space originator Harrison Owen was there, and it was excellent to meet him again over 15 years since I first came across him and Open Space.

For those who don’t yet know, Open Space is a conference/meeting/working format which emraces emergence and self-organisation in a very practical and surprisingly structured way.  See for more details.  WOSonOS was organised by the splended folk at Improbable (, with the delightful Phelim McDermott (ably assisted by his very young son Ridley) opening the space.

As part of the event I convened a session called ‘Metaphors for Leadership’.  That’s not an error, the word ‘leadership’ is crossed out.  This is a format used by philosophers to indicate that a word isn’t the right one, but no better alternative is available roght now.  I am disatisfied with the way in which the word leadership is bandied about – but there seems to better alternative right now.

One of the purposes of this site is to explore alternative views around leadership – including of course the leader as host.  However, other metaphors are available and I was keen to gather a collection from the lively minds and spirited souls at WOSonOS.  Our session report is available from the collection at the Devoted & Disgruntled website (…), and I reproduce it here.

This was an interesting and constructive discussion. Metaphors encourage us to bring forth the worthwhile parts of a metaphor, leaving the less useful parts behind.

Metaphors emerging included:

  • Waiter
  • Servant
  • Host
  • Congenial host
  • Gardener
  • Mountain guide
  • Ecosystem
  • A circle
  • A triangle
  • (Not a hat!)
  • Chef
  • The guy who points (the way)
  • Horse whisperer (a horse will follow you – if you’re worth following!)
  • Open Space Technology
  • A lighthouse
  • A light (that illuminates the territory)
  • Jesus, the light of the world
  • ‘Being’ ‘
  • Giving’ – leadership is given by different people at different times
  • Invisible leaders / figure heads – these are not the same, maybe need each other
  • Warrior
  • Inner warrior
  • Co-workership (in Swedish ‘medarbeterskarp’)
  • Listeningship
  • Stotytellingship
  • Resource giver
  • Flame lighter
  • Fire keeper
  • Firestarter
  • Medicine wheel
  • Doing what’s needed at that moment
  • Warrior (again)
  • Teacher
  • Healer
  • Visionary (these are 4 archetypes)
  • A break in inertia – releasing something
  • An aware thing
  • A guide dog
  • A bespoke tailor – what do you need today sir?…
  • Personal trainer
  • Yoga teacher
  • Surgeon
  • Axe man
  • A humane killer
  • A wheel of teaching, healing and knowledge
  • Giving impulse to chaos
  • If change is constant, we are all leaders all the time!
  • Mis-leading? A trickster
  • A vector – direction and path (not a goal)
  • A ray of light
  • Conway’s Law – the team = the product
  • First follower – a group worth being part of
  • Silence…..
  • ‘Crumping’ – clown dancing
  • A guardian – guarding a space of principles or something)
  • A jazz musician – no wrong notes!
  • Improv performer – listening, yes-and thinking

So – which of these sparks a new thought from you?  I was struck by ‘Firestarter’ – not just because of the exciting music by The Prodigy which it conjures up for me (see, but also the idea of someone who is instrumental, albeit in small ways, of initiating things which can spread.

And what would you like to add to this list?

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