Hans was a senior executive at a leading telecommunications firm. He was well-known throughout the organisation as someone who used military discipline to ensure the timely delivery of tough projects – a reputation that resulted in a rapid rise through the company.

When Hans was dispatched to turn around an underperforming research and development division, he tried applying some of his military discipline. Instead of making employees more productive, he actually found they became less focused on their tasks and more interested in questioning his orders.

The end result was that Hans was not able to deliver the kind of results that corporate headquarters expected from him. The approach to leadership that had helped Hans to succeed in his career for years had actually become an impediment to him.

Career wall

Hans’ story is common among many high-potential executives. They develop an approach to leadership early on in life. It helps them to succeed for many years. But one day, the very style of leadership that has worked for so long becomes a liability. Often this can result in people hitting a career wall, beyond which they find it hard to progress.

So what should leaders whose tried and tested approach to leadership is failing do? The most important step is for them to become aware of their own in-built leadership biases.

In research carried out by Cass Business School, we found that leaders typically rely on a metaphor of leadership. They use this metaphor to compare leadership with something they are familiar with. Six of the key metaphors are:

The commander Gives orders, punishes and sometimes fights alongside the troops.

The buddy Creates a friendly and convivial environment, and makes people feel at home in the workplace.

The therapist Helps people to develop, grow and nurture their inner potential.

The bully Intimidates people and encourages a sense of fear.

The saint A quasi-religious figure who inspires and transforms his or her followers.

The cyborg Performs at super-human levels.

Leaders might ask themselves which of these assumptions fits their own approach to leadership, how is it helping them and how is it hindering them. Frequently, leaders who have hit a career wall have a poor understanding of their own implicit ideas about leadership. They find it hard to recognise that there are multiple ways of leading and that their own approach is just one among many.

The second big question leaders need to ask themselves is how their followers see themselves. In our research, we found that there are six metaphors that followers use to understand their own relationship to the leader:

The soldier Sees his or her role as just following orders.

The friend Nurtures a good relationship with his or her boss.

The patient Shares his or her inner feelings with the boss.

The victim Views his or her role as taking punishment.

The believer This person seeks out deeper meaning and transcendental experiences.

The imperfect human Sees him or herself as not being able to live up to the boss’ super-human standards.

Mismatched styles

Leaders might ask themselves whether the way their followers see themselves actually matches their own style. Often, if managers are facing problems, it is because there is a large mismatch between their own approach to leadership and what their followers are looking for.

The final question leaders need to ask themselves is how their company implicitly understands itself. One way to answer this question is to think about the metaphors that are constantly used in the company. For instance, one public transportation organisation that we worked with used military metaphors in everyday discussion. They talked about themselves as an ‘occupying army’. This tends to suggest that the organisation sees itself as a military organisation.

In this case, it is likely to promote people who see themselves as commanders or soldiers. However, things can get tricky if the company is attempting to change its identity. When this happens, it might start to look for leaders and followers who see themselves in different ways.

By reflecting on how they see themselves, how their followers see themselves and how the organisation sees itself, leaders are then able to identify where there are overlaps as well as disconnects.

Smart leaders need not only to be able to broaden the range of metaphors that they rely on, but also to tailor their approach to their followers and their organisation as a whole. And the only way to do this is by asking some tough questions of themselves.

Andre Spicer is a professor of organisational behaviour at Cass Business School, part of City University London