Looking for a metaphor for business? As our A-to-Z compendium of similes and analogies will show, any metaphor you can think of has probably been used before.
I never metaphor I didn't like.
Poets use metaphor to help readers see familiar objects in new and provocative ways. Business authors use metaphor to help themselves sell books in new and provocative ways. Ever since Sun Tzu stoked fires in the well-padded bellies of corporate leaders with The Art of War (which for 2,500 years wasn't marketed as a business book, Tzu's original publishers having missed a trick), metaphor-laden books have sold briskly. Managers look to battle, sport, science, the arts, and -- sadly -- cheese to reveal truths not present in more literal-minded texts. The best way to understand what business is really like is to study things that aren't really like business.
The following A-to-Z rundown of business metaphors is by no means exhaustive: in the interest of limiting ourselves to 26 examples we've left out many items, from football to rocket science. But compiling any kind of alphabetical primer requires making trade-offs. In that sense, it's a lot like business.
A is for Antarctic exploration
In the eat-or-be-eaten world of business you'd expect the Donner Party to win the Most Admired Explorers title hands down. Instead, business readers are devouring the exploits of Sir Ernest Shackleton, the intrepid commander who used a rowboat, penguin meat, and benchmarkable management practices to save 27 men from freezing to death in the Ant-arctic. Yes, there is an I in ice, but that didn't stop Shackleton from forming effective teams and exhorting the personal best from each individual. Shackleton's Way: Leadership Lessons From the Great Antarctic Explorer, by Margot Morrell and Stephanie Capparell, has been embraced by everyone from Fortune 500 to the CEOs of Internet start-ups, who presumably see in the disintegration of the floes beneath Shackleton's feet a situation analogous to their own. Except Shackleton got his people out in one piece.
B is for baseball
You couldn't ask for a better turnaround artist than Billy Martin, the baseball manager and longtime George Steinbrenner nemesis who spun into gold a succession of hapless teams. With his ferocious temper and penchant for infuriating people, Martin comes off like the Al Dunlap of professional athletics. But Michael DeMarco, author of Dugout Days: Untold Tales and Leadership Lessons From the Extraordinary Career of Billy Martin, considers his subject closer in style to Jack Welch. DeMarco also compares Martin to General Patton, who was famous for his boldness, discipline, and embrace of the warrior spirit. And who wrote the preface to Patton on Leadership: Strategic Lessons for Corporate Warfare? Why, George Steinbrenner, of course.
C is for commando
War is hell. Business is war. Ergo, business is hell. And into the fray where lesser men hesitate and are lost drops Richard Marcinko, presumably lowering himself on a rope made of hair hacked from his enemies' scalps. Leadership Secrets of the Rogue Warrior: A Commando's Guide to Success is no sedate screed on the elegance of well-wrought strategy. Marcinko, who earned his tough-bastard stripes as a Navy SEAL and burnished them as a consultant, barks and swears and talks about killing the competition. He means that metaphorically, of course. Probably. Perhaps.
D is for dance
Dance is about timing; business is about timing. Dance is about movement; business is about movement. Dance is about rhythm; business is about rhythm. That's about as far as the metaphor extends in Jeffrey C. Shuman's The Rhythm of Business: The Key to Building and Running Successful Companies. Despite dance-instruction diagrams plastered across the cover and occasional references in subject headers ("The Cash Flow Tango," "Leveling the Dance Floor"), Shuman's terpsichorean allusions are superficial at best. We ache for the lost chance to explore the graceful waltz of a well-formed alliance, the jig of an animated brainstorming session, the minuet of thoughtful process design, and the tap of fast, flawless execution. Bring in da noise, Mr. Shuman. Bring in da funk.
E is for Elizabeth I
You're out of cash. Your competitors are hungrily eyeing your assets. And although you've broken through the glass ceiling, your followers doubt that a woman can handle the job. You're ... Queen Elizabeth I, leader of one of the most dysfunctional family businesses in history. Elizabeth's life is a thoroughly modern managerial-success story. The new queen triumphed by mastering the facts of a situation, assembling a brilliant advisory board, tracking every penny, and rigorously controlling her image, explains Alan Axelrod in Elizabeth I, CEO: Strategic Lessons From the Leader Who Built an Empire. By definition, the personal affairs of the "Virgin Queen" were less satisfactory. Those desiring a role model for work-life balance should look elsewhere.
F is for fractals
At first glance, the illustrations in Leadership and the New Science: Learning About Organization From an Orderly Universe look like psychedelic gift wrap. But they are, in fact, fractals -- which Margaret J. Wheatley defines as objects that repeat "a similar pattern or design at ever-smaller levels of scale." In other words (and other words are very, very helpful here), fractals result when a shape or an equation or an organization's values are processed repeatedly in an endless feedback loop with each iteration producing similarities but also new levels of complexity. Something like that. Anyway, fractals are ubiquitous in nature, but they also characterize companies whose employees "trust in the power of guiding principles or values, knowing that they are strong enough influencers of behavior to shape every employee into a desired representation of the organization," writes Wheatley. So having a fractal organization is good. We think.
G is for geese
Forget the eagle. Yes, Donald H. Weiss knows that entrepreneurs like to imagine themselves as spiritual kin to the Great Bald: independent, fierce, soaring. But greatness "doesn't come to people perched in an aerie high above the world they seek to conquer," argues Weiss in Secrets of the Wild Goose: The Self-Management Way to Increase Your Personal Power and Inspire Productive Teamwork. Rather, Weiss is smitten with the collegial Canadian wild goose who "flies alone in full command of its own wing power ... individually contributing to the flock's progress, while relying on the other geese to do their share." Geese are like successful business leaders in that they manage resources well, effectively motivate their troops, and apparently practice a primitive form of succession planning. Sadly, geese score lower on planning and "visioning." And the book makes no allusion to their core competency, which blankets lawns and golf courses everywhere.
H is for Hollywood
Hoo-ray for: an information-intensive industry whose evolution into a project-based structure presaged the emergence of our technology-reliant networked economy. Dah dah dah dah dah dah dah...Hollywood! Tinseltown, historically ruled by all-powerful studios, has morphed into an amalgam of "loose, temporary project groups that draw from a central talent pool," explain Mark London Williams and Steve Barth in Knowledge Management magazine. That model -- in which intellectual capital (the acting talent of Ben Affleck, say) bounces from knowledge-based project to knowledge-based project ( Pearl Harbor to Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back) -- is de rigueur in companies that rely on outsourcing and independent contractors. "Hollywood's network economy isn't unique," explain Joel Kotkin and David Friedman in a 1995 article for Inc. "Eventually every knowledge-intensive industry will end up in the same flattened, atomized state." As one executive whose function was outsourced put it, "It's only the companies that got small."
I is for improvisational theater
All Sun Microsystems is a stage, and all its entrepreneurial leaders and flexible product groups merely players. So suggests Rosabeth Moss Kanter in Evolve! Succeeding in the Digital Culture of Tomorrow. "The drama of management was once like traditional theater," writes Kanter, who blasts both for their reluctance to innovate. On the other hand, the companies best positioned to make hay of the Web operate like "improvisational theater," the author notes. "A general theme is identified to get the actors started. Then the actors try out different moves, develop the story as they interact with the audience, and create a better experience with each round." Too bad so many audience members shouted suggestions like "online advertising" and "premium-tier services."
J is for jazz
In John Kao's Jamming: The Art and Discipline of Business Creativity, Charlie Parker is the essence of a talented innovator, and bebop is the killer app. Jam sessions are the perfect metaphor for creativity management, Kao believes, because in "today's global marketplace -- turbulent, 'spacey,' and endlessly demanding of the new, the experimental, the faster, the better, and the cheaper -- there's no time for business managers to look for solutions in the archives of corporate sheet music." OK, organizations do need some sheet music -- in the form of budgets, agendas, and the like -- but they also need the freedom to improvise, to innovate, to feed and channel inspiration. Jazz artists walk the line in music that managers walk in business: "to locate the ever-mobile sweet spot somewhere between systems and analysis on the one hand and the free-flowing creativity of the individual on the other," writes Kao. Take five.
K is for kiddie stories
In his classic book, The Uses of Enchantment, Bruno Bettelheim revealed the psychological and existential truths that animate classic fairy tales. But a mine of management principles also lies beneath all those happily-ever-afters. In Goldilocks on Management: 27 Revisionist Fairy Tales for Serious Managers, Gloria Gilbert Mayer and Thomas Mayer translate what are essentially Aesopian morals into basic business sense. So, for example, Little Red Riding Hood demonstrates that competitors will take advantage of inexperience. The Pied Piper teaches us that consultants should be carefully managed. The Bremen Town Musicians is about the importance of functional teams. And The Emperor's New Clothes proves that the only reliable sources of accurate information are individuals without a vested interest. Like, say, the authors of business books.
L is for Lear
King Lear may be the definitive work on succession management. But it is also about the failure of authority and the ability of omnipotent executives to destroy organizations with one poor decision. "One of Shakespeare's clearest lessons is that when this much power is placed in one person, there is a great chance that the power will be used in a capricious or whimsical way," writes Paul Corrigan in Shakespeare on Management: Leadership Lessons for Today's Managers. And though today's organizations are less feudal than the England of Shakespeare's plays, Corrigan sees no shortage of modern Lears. One sign of progress: When contemporary business leaders blow it, their followers end up without jobs. When Shakespeare's leaders blew it, their followers ended up without heads.
M is for martial arts
From the jujitsu-schooled warriors of feudal Japan to cinema's crouching tigers, practitioners of martial arts are celebrated for their agility, speed, and ability to use an opponent's power against him or her. For business leaders, what's not to like? Judo strategy is particularly important for small companies, explain David Yoffie and Mary Kwak in Judo Strategy: Turning Your Competitors' Strengths to Your Advantage, because "it values skill over size and strength." The business world is awash in successful judokas: for example, Charles Schwab turned Fidelity's fee-collection strength against the giant by eliminating many of Schwab's own charges. Then there's Netscape, which initially outfoxed Microsoft in the browser wars by championing cross-platform technology. Of course, the outcome of that battle was predictable to anyone who's seen Raiders of the Lost Ark. All the fancy fighting in the world won't help you if the other guy has a gun.
N is for Newtonian physics
The influence of Sir Isaac Newton has been pervasive in business -- and not just in the years when Apple's sales were falling. Newton's rationalist view of the universe influenced everything from the mechanical models that underlie organizations to modern accounting systems. But the juiciest management meat is in the laws of motion and gravitation, says Richard Koch, author of The Natural Laws of Business: How to Harness the Power of Evolution, Physics, and Economics to Achieve Business Success. For example, entrepreneurs guided by the principle of action and reaction will stake out not the hot market of the moment but rather the hot market destined to emerge in opposition to it. The business equivalent of gravity is competition. And intense competition imitates the forces that create black holes. But black holes are an Einstein thing. And we already have an entry for "E."
O is for organized crime
Wise guy is an imperfect synonym for guru. So Bob Andelman has an excuse to seek management lessons in the wiretapped conversations and court testimony of mobsters. (See Context magazine, February/March 2001.) Take this bit of advice from Boston capo Ilario Zannino: "If you're clipping people ... make sure you clip the people around him first. Get them together, 'cause everybody's got a friend. He could be the dirtiest [bleep] in the world, but someone likes this guy, that's the guy that sneaks you." Andelman makes the management connection by telling leaders to use a "killer app" to "knock off an entire class of competitors" -- much the way that Home Depot sent hundreds of hardware stores to sleep with the fishes. The entrepreneur's viewpoint comes from The Sopranos' Paulie Walnuts: "How did we miss out on this? Espresso, cappuccino, we [bleeping] invented this!"
P is for philosophy
Who'd a thunk that Tom Chappell, founder of Tom's of Maine, used the works of theologian Martin Buber to get his toothpaste company back on track? Or that pre-Socratic philosopher Heraclitus may have introduced change management? Philosophy is relevant to business, and not just the Hobbesian stuff that floats the boats of masters-of-the-universe types. In his book If Aristotle Ran General Motors: The New Soul of Business, Tom Morris asserts that certain elemental truths "undergird any sort of human excellence or flourishing." The goal is to reinvent corporations along the principles of truth, beauty, goodness, and unity. And what would Aristotle do at General Motors? He'd make sure all the employees find their work personally fulfilling. That is, if his busy lecture-circuit schedule let him.
Q is for quantum mechanics
The Newtonian world is rational, predictable, ruled by numbers. The quantum world -- governed by the motion of subatomic particles -- is uncertain, unpredictable, prone to paradox. Which better describes your business? Probably the latter, says Ralph H. Kilmann, author of Quantum Organizations: A New Paradigm for Achieving Organizational Success and Personal Meaning. Kilmann prefers the quantum model because companies are made up of human beings (which he calls "self-motion monads") with minds of their own. Managers cannot predict human behavior in the same way they can predict, say, what will happen to a billiard ball when you hit it from a certain angle. Consequently, Kilmann argues, they should design strategies, processes, and reward systems with particulate care. (It is tempting to suggest that the quantum view is most appropriate for small companies because they are somewhat closer in size than large organizations to the atom. Tempting but silly.)
R is for religion
In this religious country, who better to dispense business wisdom than the results-oriented leaders of the Bible? Laurie Beth Jones has turned Jesus, CEO: Using Ancient Wisdom for Visionary Leadership into a mini consulting-and-publishing empire based on her subject's motivational and managerial strengths. But Jesus has some Old Testament competition, as evidenced by Moses on Management: 50 Leadership Lessons From the Greatest Manager of All Time. The authors of The Wisdom of Solomon at Work: Ancient Virtues for Living and Leading Today urge managers to also consider Ruth, Job, David, and especially Solomon, who may be the most relevant for entrepreneurs. "The great buildings of Solomon's reign serve as a monument to traditional ideas about prosperity and material wealth," the authors write. "However, if we reflect more deeply, we may face the question, 'for whom do you build up and why?"
S is for Star Trek
Great leadership is about the future, not the past. So why bother with long-dead heroes when you can study someone who won't be born for 200 years? Jean-Luc Picard, captain of the starship Enterprise, epitomizes strong, caring leadership, say Wess Roberts and Bill Ross in Make It So: Leadership Lessons From Star Trek: The Next Generation. Readers will marvel at Picard's focus during run-ins with the Borg and at his deft management of challenging employees, including Data, a humanoid android, and Worf, a Klingon. (This is the definitive book about managing diversity.) Jean-Luc is also a font of inspiration: "We must recognize that in the most dire circumstances, an officer must retain a sense of hope -- trusting in his own ability and in the competence of others to stand firm against what would otherwise be an overpowering tide of helplessness and gloom." Go boldly, Captain Picard. Go boldly.
T is for Tyrannosaurus Rex
Jurassic Park was released in 1993, so the 1994 publication of William Lareau's Dancing With the Dinosaur: Learning to Live in the Corporate Jungle was probably unavoidable. Lareau's focus on the jungle primeval, a conceit achieved chiefly by slapping suffixes such as "-asaurus" or "-adon" onto office stereotypes, is as elegant as it is effective (which is to say, not at all). A metaphor-translation chart explains that a "hotshotadon" is a hotshot and an "executiv-adon bloatasaurus" is an executive. Little can be learned by imagining employees pursued by a Faceupadon Tofailureasaurus, however, since Lareau chose his metaphor for its ability to cause "cognitive dissonance" rather than because corporate types are more like dinosaurs than, say, circus performers or roving packs of baboons. Honest to Godasaurus.
U is for U.S. Marines
Business loves boot camps. But bull-dogged drill sergeants and shorn recruits are not all that the U.S. Marines offer companies. "Everything about the marines -- their culture, their organizational structure, their management style, their logistics, their decision-making process -- is geared toward high-speed, high-complexity environments," writes David H. Freedman in Corps Business: The 30 Management Principles of the U.S. Marines. Marines make decisions quickly but never irresponsibly. Their range of capabilities allows them to handle any assignment. Most important, they get the job done even when the mission is poorly defined and the environment chaotic -- status quo for business today. The marine ethos is embodied by such business leaders as Robert Lutz, now of General Motors, and Fred Smith of FedEx. Of course, other branches of the armed forces have also spawned corporate leaders. But as Freedman reminds us, Ross Perot -- who built rigid, conservative EDS -- was a navy man.
V is for voodoo
Back when Internet companies were pulling sky-high valuations out of zero-profit hats, the new economy seemed magical. Even now that many of those businesses have vanished back up their conjurers' sleeves, we yearn for mystery, insist RenÉ Carayol and David Firth, authors of Corporate Voodoo: Principles for Business Mavericks and Magicians. Specifically, say the authors, we need voodoo. Originally, voodoo flourished among slaves, who drew strength in captivity from their Afro-Caribbean religion. The book's whimsy is that voodoo, in its corporate incarnation, "releases people from the slavery of old ways of being, thinking about and leading organizations" and "connects people with what is important, meaningful and instinctual." In practice, voodoo seems interchangeable with new economy. Voodoo's followers may march to the beat of a different tribal drummer, but we've heard the song before.
W is for Wizard of Oz
Business gurus promise magical transformation. But most are just ordinary folks pulling strings behind a curtain. In The Oz Principle: Getting Results Through Individual and Organizational Accountability, Roger Connors, Tom Smith, and Craig Hickman disdain business thinkers who -- like Oz -- promise a "solution" that doesn't exist. Fortunately, managers and employees -- much like a certain fictional quartet -- hold within themselves the power to achieve the desired results. First, though, they need the courage to see reality, the heart to "own" their circumstances, and the brain -- er, wisdom -- to overcome obstacles. They find those things on the road -- picture one with an ocher cast -- of change. "People relate to the theme of a journey from ignorance to knowledge, from fear to courage, from insensitivity to caring, from paralysis to powerfulness, from victimization to accountability," the book points out. That goes for Toto, too.
X is for x-presidents
The great thing about U.S. presidents is that, as chief executives of the most complex organization on earth, their wisdom is invaluable to business leaders. The great thing about dead ex-presidents is that you don't have to shell out $10 million to publish that wisdom. Past prezes with business tomes include Theodore Roosevelt (youthful, dynamic, progressive) and Ulysses S. Grant (hard-drinking, indecisive, and inconsistent -- but his "lessons" come chiefly from the battlefield, so it's OK). James M. Strock's Theodore Roosevelt on Leadership renders its subject as an aggressive, risk-taking master of PowerPoint-friendly advice. John Barnes's Ulysses S. Grant on Leadership: Executive Lessons From the Front Lines praises the general as an innovator, communicator, and delegator. Of course, Grant's chief claim to sage status is that he won a war. But winning isn't everything: Robert E. Lee has at least two leadership books to his name.
Y is for yacht racing
Is there anything so heartwarming as a business mogul and his sailboat? Ted Turner and Courageous. Larry Ellison and Sayonara. Roy Disney and Pyewacket. And wouldn't you know it, while those titans of industry are battling churning seas and screaming winds, they are also exercising valuable management insight, according to Peter Isler and Peter Economy, authors of At the Helm: Business Lessons for Navigating Rough Waters. The book compares the early days of an America's Cup campaign to an entrepreneurial start-up, but bootstrappers, beware: it costs, on average, $25 million to compete in sailing's most prestigious event. In addition, "it's often said that the perfect racing sailboat is one that has pushed the limits of what is humanly and technologically possible so far that it falls apart and sinks just after it wins the regatta," write the authors. So much for built to last.
Z is for Zeus
Just what company leaders need: another reason to think of themselves as gods. But that's what Charles Handy gives them in Gods of Management: The Changing Work of Organizations. The Greek gods personify traits that characterize people and, Handy argues, corporate cultures. Do you run a small entrepreneurial company where decisions are quickly made and intuitively based on powerful empathy? Then yours is a Zeus culture, making you the top dog among top gods. The new economy, clearly, was a hotbed of Zeusian enterprises, most of which fell from Olympus. In the Internet age, even immortality won't save you from early death.
Leigh Buchanan is a senior editor at Inc.
Please e-mail your comments to email@example.com.