The Lantern and The Lighthouse: A Leadership Parable

Leadership itself is rarely a science. More often it is a passion or set of beliefs. Or, in the case of The Leadership Challenge, it is a set of five core Practices. This is why I believe that leadership development lends itself so well to parables and metaphors, as in The Lantern and The Lighthouse.


In our work in the Asian region, we find that one of the greatest stresses leaders face is the tension between their goal and the journey they must travel to achieve their reality.

And this leadership parable often helps, ahem, throw some light on this tension.


One of the concerns participants in our Leadership Challenge® Workshop have is how to ‘set the direction’ for the way ahead and also how to communicate that path, especially when the way ahead is not clear We hear these comments most often during the extended sessions we conduct that focus on the two Practices, Model the Way and Inspire a Shared Vision.


The Lantern and the Lighthouse

1. The Lighthouse. In most cases we have some idea of the direction we are expected to go. We have, in the distance, some reference point or Lighthouse that we can refer our followers to. Our job as leaders then is to make that light as clear and vivid as possible. This is why we need to Inspire a Shared Vision. But first, we must point out the path or way ahead. In this case, we need to create a clear strategy, and in our work we use a strategic thinking Model to do that.  By creating a strategy and communicating it effectively, we can be more confident that our team will go in the direction we need them to go.


2. The Lantern. But what if the way ahead is not clear? What if it is foggy and there is nothing we can do about it? This is when we use The Lantern. Sometimes we can’t see where a path is leading. In this case we need simply to push on, communicating as much as possible, in order to throw enough light to see a few feet ahead. The Chinese call this ‘wading across the river, feeling the stones along the way’. While this may be more stressful than having a Lighthouse to guide our way, your followers will feel less stressed if they are engaged in the process.


We can look to tools used in project management as another way of seeing how this might be applied. For example, the Lighthouse is more like a methodology using GANTT in which we articulate our end goal and work backwards from that. The Lantern is more similar to Agile in which we work forward, iteratively—learning as we go, not sure exactly what the end result may be. As a leader, the key thing is to use one or the other. (Or following the model set by such exemplary leaders as polar explorer Ernest Shackleton, we use both.)  If the fog remains without the leader providing either a Lantern or a Lighthouse, that’s when followers begin to doubt, when confidence drains, and when stress levels rise.


Leadership is Both Strategy and Struggle

As Kouzes and Posner tell us in The Leadership Challenge, “Leadership is the art of mobilizing others to want to struggle for shared aspirations”. The word ‘struggle’ is self-explanatory (and very familiar to all of us, I’m sure!) The word ‘aspiration’ is imbued with the concept of an end result or goal.

Leadership is essentially both. Five-Star General and U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower said that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable. With leadership, it’s always the process that matters.

Nick Talent, CEO of Talent Technologies (Asia) Co. Ltd., is an innovative trainer, facilitator, and motivator who helps individuals achieve their best. He continually adapts The Leadership Challenge to the diverse range of participants in the Asia Pacific region with good results both during and after training. He has been featured on Thai TV and his work has appeared in professional publications throughout the region. He can be reached at



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