1. Home
  2. Blog

Heather wins prestigious international award for her “Metaphors for Leadership’ research


I had heard that Heather Cairns-Lee had been given a prestigious academic award for her PhD in which she used Clean Interviewing to find metaphors for leadership, so when she attended our Adventures in Clean event I caught up with her to find out more…

Heather, what is the award you received?

It is the Outstanding Doctoral Research Award for Leadership and Organisational Development awarded by Emerald, a leading publisher of academic journals, and EFMD (European Foundation for Management Development).

Emerald and EFMD collaborate to encourage and reward excellence in management research. Since 2005, an award has been presented annually in ten categories of management research, including Leadership and Organisational Development. Heather received an invitation to publish in the Leadership and Organization Development Journal, a cash prize, certificate and a winners’ logo to attach to her correspondence.

And what is your PhD about?

Its title is, “An exploration of leadership and its development through the inner worlds of leaders using metaphor”. I was focusing on how leaders’ own mental models of leadership can be made visible and available for reflection through the exploration of leaders’ naturally occurring metaphors. Click Heather’s PhD to access her research.

And what led you to be studying this subject?

Working in leadership development for 20 years, I noticed that when leaders had ‘aha moments’ they typically described them using metaphor. I have always been a lover of Carl Jung and interested in the symbolic and then in 2005 I attended a European coaching conference in Brussels, where I met Jennifer de Gandt and Silvie de Clerk and learned about Clean Language. Then I treated myself to a retreat at Jennifer’s place in France in 2006 where I met Penny Tompkins and James Lawley. This was one of the best experiences of personal and professional development in my life. None of my experience was interpreted - instead I was gently encouraged into thinking about how my inner world was organised.

And then what happened?

I decided to do a PhD, eliciting metaphors from the leaders I’d been meeting for leadership development work. This had not been done before in the academic world. Most researchers impose a metaphor on a phenomenon like leadership or organisational change. For example, Gareth Morgan’s eight metaphors for organisations in Images of Organization originated from his own thinking rather than from the organisations he studied. His work has been very important for bringing organisational metaphors to the surface and shining light on them. So I thought I would do my research on leadership cleanly and elicit leaders’ metaphors through clean interviews. A good friend of mine, who had already done a PhD recommended Paul Tosey at the Surrey Business School and as I read about him, Clean Language popped up again (Paul is one of a very small group of academic researchers who use Clean Language Interviewing) and that made my mind up.

My first question was: “How clean is clean?” Having been a coach for 18 years I felt I was a pretty good listener, and yet I had this nagging question. So I trained to become a Clean Facilitator and came to a whole new understanding of what it’s like to work with Clean Language and metaphor. My own metaphor for Clean Language is that of a swan. A swan looks serene and calm swimming along but you don’t see the work going on under the surface – paddling etc.

I realised how easy it would be for me to be ‘unclean’ so I asked James Lawley to work with Paul and me to ensure the whole thing would be a clean research project. This included everything from the way I approached participants, the questions I asked and the way I looked at the data. Then my questions were assessed using James’s cleanness rating.

How many people did you interview?

I interviewed 30 leaders, and I interviewed each of them twice, so 60 interviews altogether. In the first interview I elicited their metaphor for leadership – with no interpretation. Then I invited them to draw their metaphors and afterwards I sent them a transcript of their interview to read. Some weeks later, in the second interview, I asked what, if anything, they had learned – from the interview, the drawing or the transcript. For some, the drawing encapsulated everything. Some found that reading their own words was very powerful and others preferred the live interview.

And what kind of leaders were they?

I interviewed a cross-section of business leaders from CEOs and board members of blue chip companies to people running business units or regions to first-time leaders. The leaders were from 15 different nationalities and worked in diverse organisations.

And what did you discover?

There were several major findings:

First of all: Leaders make sense of the world through metaphor. Although this may seem obvious to Clean Language practitioners, this had not been made so explicit in the academic world before. And the metaphors they used were idiosyncratic – everyone’s metaphor landscape was different.

However, it was possible to identify 10 clusters of deep metaphors:

  • Connection
  • Energy
  • Balance
  • Puzzling out
  • Creating the environment
  • Catalyst,
  • Self-reflection
  • Giving Space
  • Visualising the Future

I used Robert Kegan’s (1994) ‘meaning-making’ model as a lens through which to view the results. He talks about adult development in stages of meaning making with each successive stage building on the previous one. The first stage is called the ‘socialised mind’ (when you take your thoughts from other people), the second is called the ‘self-authoring mind’ (when you make meaning for yourself) and the third is the ‘self-transforming mind’ (when you have a view on your own perspectives).

When I did the second interviews I found that the majority of leaders had become more self-authoring as a result of the first interview and of surfacing and exploring their own metaphors for leadership. It clarified their minds. In the first interview I asked: “What is leadership?” Many of them said, “I don’t know” or, “That’s a tough question.” As I stayed clean, they began to realise that I would not provide any answers and so despite being uncomfortable, feeling inarticulate and looking to me for answers, they began to make meaning for themselves.

Until then, most of their ideas about leadership had come from early authority figures like parents, teachers and particularly first bosses. It is important for leaders to have their own point of view about leadership as this helps them become more authentic rather than adopting the thoughts of others.

And how come you won the award?

The competition is open to anyone who has completed a PhD that addresses an important issue. I had already won the Surrey Business School Postgraduate Researcher of the Year award in 2017, and Paul suggested I apply for the Emerald/EFMD award. I had to apply and to be nominated by my supervisors. This involved us all in writing a piece to explain why my PhD is outstanding. Paul wrote:

Heather’s thesis represents an important contribution to the field in the following respects:

(1) It addresses a significant gap in the field concerning the development of self-awareness by making mental models available for reflection.

(2) It demonstrates that leader’s own metaphors of leadership are diverse and more numerous than existing, deductive studies suggest.

(3) It challenges the prevailing paradigm of programmed, behavioural approaches to leadership development by providing evidence of the effectiveness of a personalised approach through the medium of metaphor.

(4) It represents the first large-scale application of ‘Clean Language’ to research, as a method of interviewing to elicit leaders’ naturally occurring metaphors with minimal contamination of data from the researcher.

And how come you wanted to do a PhD in the first place?

It had been a dream of mine for a long time. I was motivated to do the PhD by my experience with leaders, who frequently asked me how they could understand their own leadership. This question prompted me to pursue the PhD to apply rigour to this question and to use the academic rigour to ensure that I finished what I started! The PhD aimed to understand how leaders can develop awareness of their leadership through surfacing and understanding their own mental models through metaphor.

How long did it take?

It took 6 years part-time and I’d say I was productively working on it for 4 of those years. I have a husband, two daughters and I was working as an executive coach. And there were times when I could have given up due to the challenges that life threw my way including a brush with breast cancer. But persistence is my middle name and I wanted to prove the value of metaphoric knowing.

And what happens next?

I want to write a book. Having discovered 10 deep metaphors for leadership I now want to validate and verify those categories. I have spent a lot of time thinking about this book over this ‘Adventures’ weekend and have even come up with an idea for the book cover!

I am also writing a paper with James and Paul on cleaning up the way questions are asked in academic research. In my viva my examiners were particularly interested in the use of Clean Language, so we are aiming to publish this in a top research journal to further bolster the value of Clean Language Interviewing.

Thanks for your interest Marian – it has been fun talking with you about this!

About Marian Way

Marian Way's avatar

A highly skilled facilitator and trainer, Marian, who founded Clean Learning in 2001, has developed and delivered training across the world. She is the author of Clean Approaches for Coaches, co-author, with James Lawley, of Insights in Space and co-author, with Caitlin Walker, of So you want to be… #DramaFree.

Marian is an expert Clean facilitator, an adept modeller, a programme writer and an inspirational trainer. She has a natural ability to model existing structures, find the connections between them and design new ways for people to learn. Marian was a leading innovator within the Weight Watchers organisation, which included developing the “points” strategy, a local idea that went on to become a global innovation. She is a director of both Clean Learning and Training Attention CIC, world leaders in clean applications for corporate, educational and community development. She designs our programmes and workbooks, leads workshops and teaches on all our courses. She’s trained people in Great Britain, Russia, Sweden, Germany, Australia, Japan and the USA. Marian is also a recognised Clean Assessor.

Blog categories
Adventures in Clean
Book Reviews
Clean Ambassadors
Clean Interviewing
Clean Language
Clean Space
Clean with Groups
Case Studies
David Grove
Life Purpose
Meet the Team
Practice Group
Symbolic Modelling
Systemic Modelling