The Ins and Outs of Cardboard Boxes: Lessons for Focus and Leadership

boxWorking with a client yesterday I witnessed a powerful transformation in mindset. Lisa (not her real name of course), a Global Team Leader, wanted to talk through and understand her feeling of overwhelm which was sapping her energy and undermining her ability to concentrate and follow through. She said she was feeling stressed, not because she had too much to do, but rather because she could see more opportunities than she could handle.

As a visual person, and in attempt to clarify what was going on for her, my instinct was to share what came into my mind, which was that she ‘could not see the wood for the trees’. Happily I resisted the temptation and asked her whether the situation triggered any images for her. She then described feeling as if she were in a box but that she ought to be outside it to find answers. When I asked her what was keeping her inside the box she replied that the box contained a jigsaw puzzle to be solved.

Further questions revealed that it is dark inside the box and she cannot see what she is doing. When she does on occasion actually get out of the box and views it from a distance she usually manages to interlock some of the pieces together. Despite this, she seems constantly drawn back in, anxious that being away from the box for too long would mean her missing out on the next big opportunity to solve the puzzle. When I asked her to describe the inside of the box in a little more detail she concluded that she was actually sitting on many of the pieces and was so cramped that there was no flexibility to spread them out. Some of the pieces were face down and it transpired that they represented her team members spread across three continents.

You can see where this is going and to cut a long story short, from this point Lisa’s energy lifted as she realized that, for her, leaving her normal work environment on a more regular basis was the key to getting clarity on her priorities and also to engaging her team and enabling them to grow and develop. While Lisa found this process relatively easy due to her frontal right brain thinking preference (as explained in my post on procrastination), it is my experience that almost everyone can benefit from using metaphor in this way with enough practice.

So how could you use metaphor to reignite your ambition or to get unstuck?

We are of course all different but asking yourself these questions will be a great start:

  • What images or feelings come to mind when you think of the challenge you are trying to resolve? What is the connection between the image and the challenge? Like Lisa’s box, how could your image represent a solution?
  • Once you have found a metaphor that works for you and your particular situation, what happens when you add detail? What do you see, hear and feel like? Where do your team, your boss, your colleagues and customers fit into the picture?
  • If you are stuck, what random objects could work for you? For example,
    • What car is like your problem?  How are the components similar? How can the similarities and differences provide ideas?
    • How could a beehive be like the solution to your problem? Who are you in relation to the beehive?

What do you think?

I would love to know your opinion, whether you are a seasoned user of metaphors or a novice. How easy is it to find a really powerful metaphor? What images have been most helpful? When have you successfully used metaphor to communicate an important message?

For more information Clare McNamara’s work with global executives and their teams visit

© Move Ahead Global 2014

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