Susan Boyle as parable: our hunger for mighty metaphors

Apr 20, 2009 by

By Kendall Allen

Countless many were enraptured last week by the sneaky vocals of Susan Boyle. Her talents, unveiled on “Britain’s Got Talent,” were unexpected by those who prejudged her for her appearance. Wait — that was everyone. The doubters evidently were most of those present, both panel and audience.

However, watching the video that ignited the Internet and conversation everywhere, it was those who had the opportunity to see the astonishment moment by moment and either identify with or dissect this social study, whose reaction is most interesting. By the end of the week, after millions of views, it was not just about the sweet talent. This whole thing had become a parable. It’s not that it necessarily signified or even portended anything particular to our business realities — but we do love our analogies and metaphors, especially during times of increased uncertainty. I am convinced we needed Susan Boyle right now.

As people everywhere showered plaudits on this woman for her vocal gifts, the giddiness was clearly about more than Boyle’s lovely and resonant performance. My inner balladeer was certainly touched. But, we must admit there is a certain glee — a reflex that all might be righter than we thought — when we see someone or something so judged by its cover, shine its truth through. Especially when the switcheroo is so extreme. And, when in addition to our shock, we get to actually watch others be shocked, from this vantage point in the digital age.

The lessons here were idealistic and almost romantic: books cannot be judged by their covers; hard work pays off; virtue wins. But, really, this was a more fantastic version of the metaphors we crave, craft and indulge every day.

Our Daily Metaphors

Even on a simpler day-to-day level, what gives with our inclination for metaphors? Examine any business culture, and you will see an abundance of them. The most prevalent are, of course, sport analogies. Management teams have their favored sports, positions, expressions — all geared to foster team, illustrate lines of accountability, infuse fun, and convey the stakes. We are “game-changers” at our best, “hearing footsteps” when our instincts are in peril. I could go on.

Perhaps your particular environment favors artistic analogies, martial arts, nautical references, kimonos — or even a more random proclivity for the metaphor. I’ve certainly worked for chiefs who knew how to wield the illuminating analogy like no one else. If the analogies fell flat, they at least provided comic relief at just the right moment. A friend of mine used to head to babblefish.com every time metaphors were unleashed, translate them into Portuguese and then back into English, and distribute them to the staff at-large.

Not to be over-thought, the well-placed metaphor can give you framework and orient you to the play in progress. It can light the path and clarify purpose. An apt metaphor is not always just an illustration. For those of you who have been with me for a little while — you’ll recall I broke my wrist fairly seriously over Christmas. It’s been a long heal during some interesting times.

So, along with my aforementioned inner balladeer, I have an athlete. Thus I dig sports metaphors. They work for me. Over the past couple weeks, as a bit of a spiritual comeback, I completed a certification in U.S. sailing. Running a boat, luffing and sheeting the main, heading up through 40 mph puffs of wind — all were incredible experiences. Adrenaline aside, let’s just say the conditions were extremely well-timed.

Whether the catalyst is a parable, an illuminating metaphor or a signifying experience, it’s that ability to engage at a gut level that is the great reminder. We can plot, plan, organize, run the show or play our part. But our visceral reactions to what moves us will always be as important as the intellectual ones. Especially when — as with the Boyle parable — something gets debunked.

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