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  • Writer's picturePhil Cole

The Tub - a Metaphor of Concept Development

As I mentioned before, when I asked people to define leadership, many of the definitions included what I came to call “the three Ts”. When I heard these answers, I knew they weren’t right, but I didn’t have a solid reason to say no - I didn’t have the definition.

I knew my challenge wouldn’t be to just put in everything that was leadership - I’d also have to exclude some things that weren’t leadership, but kept coming up. And I’d have to know why I was leaving these things out.

So I started to explore and categorize.

Here’s the best way I know to explain what happened next.

Imagine one of those big plastic tubs, the kind we stuff all of the things we don’t need at the minute but expect to need some day. They’re generally blue, black, or clear. They stack, they are heavy when full and never fit quite right in the space we intended, and the lids never seem to match the tub.

I have one tub, and this tub is leadership.

So I went out and tried to find every single “thing” of leadership. For the sake of the metaphor, imagine each idea is a ball. They’re all different sizes, shapes, colors, and inflated to various pressures. And there are lots of them. Each of these balls is something like a theory, a book, a tactic, a saying, and so on - and each on is represented as being part of leadership.

The assumption is that all of these balls fit into tub because they are part of leadership, and fill it up to the top - because presumably someone has thought of everything there is to know about leadership, even if it is just a loose ball that hasn’t been put into a tub yet.

Imagine me, with my tub, surrounded by balls. And I have to start fitting the balls into the tub.

So I start packing balls into the tub, pushing them, squeezing them, trying to get them to fit in a way that fills of of the space. Because, after all, I want the concepts of leadership - the balls - to fill the tub completely. I don’t want to miss any space in the leadership tub.

And this works for a while, because ideas stretch a little bit - they flex to be applied to situations where they weren’t necessary intended in the first place.

But as I pack more and more balls into the tub, I start to realize that some of them are similar - maybe it’s color, or spikiness, or whatever characteristic we imagine. But some of them belong next to each other, so I put them on one side of the tub, and some belong on the other side of the tub with their compatriots. This is like we putting the winter pants in a stack on one side, and the winter shirts on a stack on the other side. And then we’ll put the coats on top, because they’re puffy and we can use the lid to pack them down. Sometimes the balls fit really well, and sometimes they don’t.

And then I started to see that some of the balls weren’t really balls at all. They didn’t fit, or they contradicted other balls. Why am I putting bathing suits in with the winter clothes? So I started to throw those out of the tub, pile them in a corner to deal with later. And this is important, because if we put something that doesn’t belong with the balls, we can cause ourselves some pain. That lawn mower? It’s not a ball, and if I try to jam in into the tub, it’s going to pop some other balls. When we understand why it doesn’t fit, we can make deliberate choices to exclude it from our tub, from our thinking: “Innate characteristics making someone a natural leader?” Nope, that doesn’t fit, and if I jam it in there, it’s going to pop learning… and a bunch of other stuff.

This is a metaphor, but what I was actually doing (in the real world) was reading, watching, and studying everything I could - every idea, every concept, every model, every “do this secret thing and you’ll be a good leader”. I was capturing each of these things and categorizing it - metaphorically, turning it into a ball. And I saw that many of the ideas were related, they were related to the same few basic concepts. And I saw that the concepts connected to each other, that ideas that overlapped those basic concepts did so in repeating ways.

As I got better at this, I began to be able to predict where an idea would fit into the categories. In doing so, I was able to determine which categories were the largest and which categories fell within those largest. The largest categories became the three cores. And I saw the natural connections between the categories, the order in which they should go, based on how they connected to each other.

For example, there was clearly going to be a group of balls around the concept of vision. Everyone talks about vision, and I started to pile all of the balls related to vision together at one side of the tub.

At the end, I had fit all of the balls that were actually leadership into the tub in three groups. They were grouped in a logical way, and they were arranged next to each other in a logical order. When it is time to unpack this tub, it’s going to be easy to find what we’re looking for.

And what this lets us do - this process of gathering, organizing and categorizing, and assembling into a tub - is the same as when we put all of our winter clothes in a tub. When it gets to be fall and we want to get out that one pair of pants and those two shirts that we really like, we know exactly where they are (in the tub, in the stack of pants and shirts, under the coats) and we can get to them easily. It’s the same with leadership. When we need to get out that one strategy for handling difficult conversations, we can find it quickly because we know it’s in relationships. Or we can find an idea that we need even if we don’t remember it, because we can look through the stack of vision and find a good way to get more information about what external stakeholders thing. “Oh yeah, I remember these boots! I forgot they were there, but they’ll be perfect with this outfit now that it’s snowing.”

We can apply this method of problem solving to any situation we like, by the way.

All of this to say, I didn’t invent this definition. It already existed, spread out among the multitude of ideas explaining leadership. I’m just putting it together in a way that lets us, as leaders, see the whole picture and then focus where we need.

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