Michael Metzger

“… in my heart I know I’m funny.” Unfortunately, Lt. Steven Hauk was not funny. He’s clueless in Good Morning Vietnam. It’s a limitation of the left hemisphere, explaining the inability to get a joke. But it also explains the inability to craft an effective metaphor.

In the 1987 film Good Morning Vietnam, Steven Hauk (Bruno Kirby) didn’t like Adrien Cronauer’s irreverent brand of humor. Robin Williams played Cronauer, a DJ assigned to the US Armed Services Radio Station to lift morale during the Vietnam War. Hauk believed his monologues were funnier. “… in my heart I know I’m funny.” “Sir, you’re not funny,” was how one soldier replied. “Ask around.”

If company execs asked around, they’d learn that most of their metaphors are dead on arrival. Tihamér von Ghyczy, a professor at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business, describes two types, rhetorical and cognitive. Rhetorical metaphors are most common in business, such as praising a sales team for “hitting a home run.” That’s not a head turner. Ghyczy calls this a dead metaphor.1 The image is predictable. It doesn’t cause us to reflect on the complexities of hitting a home run. The image is DOA. Rhetorical metaphors offer little in the way of new perspectives or insights.

Cognitive metaphors have completely different functions: discovery and learning. They’re not predictable. They initially startle and puzzle us, exactly what Aristotle described. Effective metaphors make unfamiliar associations, causing our minds to briefly “lag behind,” he wrote. Ghyczy says in such “delicately unsettled states of mind” we are most open to reframing assumptions. Cognitive metaphors are not dead on arrival.

These two kinds of metaphor align with recent findings from neuroimaging. In The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World, psychiatrist Iain McGilchrist describes the left hemisphere as “predictive” and “narrowly focused.” It is more apt to come up with predictable (rhetorical) metaphors such as calling a top salesperson a “star performer.” That’s not a head turner. It’s DOA.

The right hemisphere is “broadly vigilant” and makes unfamiliar connections. “It alone can bring us something other than what we already know,” McGilchrist writes. The right lobe is more apt to see unpredictable connections required to craft cognitive metaphors. Einstein is Exhibit A. He was a right-brain thinker. His theory of special relativity grew out of imagining a boy riding a light beam – hardly predictable.

It works the same way in telling (and getting) a joke. Jokes are funny because they are unpredictable. It’s a right hemisphere talent. Jokesters make unfamiliar connections. “It is only in the right hemisphere that we get the point of a joke,” notes McGilchrist. Patients with right-hemisphere damage “cannot make inferences,” a prerequisite for getting a joke. It’s also a prerequisite for crafting effective metaphors.

This explains why business executives so often come up with ineffective metaphors. Most businesses are left-brained. Most left-brained leaders see metaphor as unimportant. “The biggest barrier to the acceptance of the metaphor’s cognitive status,” writes Ghyczy, “has been its rather flaky status among scientists – not to mention business executives – as a mere ornament and literary device.” In a few cases, a few left-brained execs see the value of metaphor. But they usually craft rhetorical ones. When right-brained crap detectors point out how left-brain metaphors are DOA, execs become indignant, like Lt. Hauk. “In my heart I know I’m good at metaphor.” They’re not.

According to Ghyczy, only cognitive metaphors have the power “to reeducate ourselves about the world we know – in this case, business – which, appears to be wrung free of its potential for innovation.” Innovation requires disruption. Disruption requires unpredictable metaphors. Cognitive metaphors are unpredictable. They are the product of a complete roundtable. Complete roundtables include those representing the right hemisphere – the wise sage and the crap detector. In King Arthur’s Roundtable, Merlin and Dagonet filled these roles respectively. When companies have a complete roundtable they craft effective metaphors that increase the likelihood of sustained innovation. Without a complete roundtable, metaphors are typically DOA.

Follow me on Twitter: @Metzger_Mike

1 Tihamér von Ghyczy, “The Fruitful Flaws of Strategy Metaphors,” Harvard Business Review, September 2003.


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