Gary Trudeau made a living from mocking them daily in his Doonesbury comic strip.  George Carlin, rest his soul, showed us how ridiculous they can be. Yet, despite all of the humorous disparagement, our workplace language would be unrecognizable without them. You know what I am talking about: metaphors. “Pushing the envelope.” “Leveling the playing field.” “Drawing lines in the sand.” “Rearranging the deck chairs.”

The truth is, metaphors play a major role in our work lives. They offer us the most efficient way to describe situations that are often complex in nature.

Far beyond the language of the workplace, metaphors can be a powerful tool for leaders when they rise to the level of a mental model.  Immersed in a sea of data, competing demands, and fast-changing marketplaces, good leaders strive constantly to gain perspective, so they can predict the future, make the right calls, and provide clear guidance to each and every member of the team.  By drawing connections between the current situation and other realms with which we are familiar, leaders clarify the “big picture” so they can then point the team in the right direction.  Here are three of my favorite mental models when leading teams:

The Learning Zone.  At the heart of a strong team is a commitment to continuous learning.Like our muscles, that need to be pushed beyond their previous limits to grow stronger, real learning only occurs when we are outside of our comfort zone.  The best example of this is when we travel to a foreign country where we don’t know the local language.  We start learning exceptionally fast in an attempt to regain our comfort zone.  In doing so, of course, we are actually expanding our comfort zone.  When leading a team, it is critical that you and your team spend most of your time outside of the comfort zone and in the Learning Zone to insure your team’s capabilities continue to expand rapidly.

Steering in Moving Water. At some point during my first run down Colorado’s Green River, our Outward Bound instructor explained that it was impossible to steer the boat if we were moving at the same rate of speed as the water.  The only way to steer the raft was to accelerate or decelerate in relation to the whitewater.  I have found that the same principle holds true when leading teams.  As a leader, it is important that you provide the steering power, speeding up when people seem too comfortable, or slowing things down when things begin to overheat.  Of course, it is important to know just where the team’s energy stands at any particular time, so that you make the right call.

A Strong Dance Floor.  I will admit to catching a glimpse or two of ABC’s Dancing with the Stars.  I am always amazed at how quickly the celebrities are transformed into fairly adept dancers.  As a leader, I like to think of my team members as the dancers with my role focused on making sure that the dance floor is of sound construction and well-maintained. I also provide the coaching, the music, and the lighting to make sure they can perform at their best without distraction.  When employees do not feel supported or encouraged to take their talents to a new level, they lose energy, produce less, and grow less and less excited about their commitment to the cause. Be sure to get the most out of your team by creating a strong dance floor.

Luke O’Neill joined Outward Bound in 1990 as an instructor and a development professional.  Since then, he has continued to instruct sea kayaking, sailing, and backpacking courses in Maine and Washington while also serving as a facilitator in Outward Bound Professional and Outward Bound Center for Peacebuilding programs. Luke has been involved with several educational and youth-development programs. Most recently, Luke served as the Vice President for Western U.S. Operations for Meritas, LLC and as President of Meritas’ K-12 school in Henderson, Nevada.  Previously, Luke served as CEO and Founder of Shackleton Schools, Inc. and served as the Assistant Executive Director at the Boys & Girls Club of Stamford after completing four years as a corporate attorney at Whitman, Ransom, Breed & Morgan in Connecticut.  Luke holds an MBA from Harvard Business School and earned his undergraduate and law degrees from Georgetown University. He is a certified as a SCUBA instructor (PADI), Maine Guide, Wilderness First Responder (SOLO), and CPR instructor (EFR).