Pondering leadership with metaphors was as vital to the ancient Greeks and Romans as it is to us. The pilot steering the ship of state through troubled waters, the physician curing a society of its ills, the founding father laying down laws for the nation’s children, the shepherd guiding the flock and keeping the wolves at bay -- these are all metaphors we use daily (even when we have limited experience of flocks and seas).

The cognitive linguist George Lakoff has long emphasized the importance of metaphors in all facets of human thinking (see his “Metaphors We Live By” and “Moral Politics”). According to Lakoff, metaphors are more than colorful language. They actually dictate how we process and feel about the world.

Metaphors for leadership are particularly important then, because the metaphor we use determines the sort of leader we want, and ultimately how we want the world repaired.

Plato was adept at crafting metaphor, giving us such abiding images as the allegory of the cave, the ship of state, and the simile of the sun. But Plato was also careful to recognize a metaphor’s limits. In the “Statesman” he has an interlocutor, identified as a stranger from the city of Elis, define the statesman as a kind of herdsman of people. The statesman is like a herdsman in that he is not only concerned with the survival of citizens, but also with their education. The statesman, unlike a mere messenger, is the direct source for this guidance.

We, of course, still use the metaphor of the herdsman regularly, though we may not know it. “Pastor” comes from the Latin word for “shepherd,” and “congregation” from the Latin word for “flock” (grex).

But just when the herdsman seems to be the right metaphor for the statesman, Plato has the Eleatic stranger point out its limitations. Unlike a herdsman, the statesman has rivals, in the form of judges, orators, and generals, all of whom can lay some claim to guarding, guiding, and teaching the members of the city-state.

If we take a cue from Lakoff and acknowledge that metaphors often govern thought, and we realize with Plato that metaphors can be inaccurate, we quickly see that the metaphors for leaders mentioned above are all problematic. Some of these problems cause our deepest political divides. Some people, for example, do not want the leader to play the role of a physician because they believe that people should take care of themselves. Notions of “healing” are perceived as patronizing. Others do not want to be legally and morally beholden to an infallible “father” and would like to see the biblical or constitutional rules we live by adapted with changing social and economic climates.

We must always be aware of both the value and limitation of the metaphors we use for our leaders.

Plato, for his part, remedies the metaphor of statesman as herdsman by likening him instead to a master weaver, who through his grand plan coordinates the construction of the tapestry that is the state. In this model, the statesman conceives of the ideal while the judges, generals, and orators are kept in place to implement and communicate it. If we accept Plato’s assertion in the “Republic” that the Philosopher King would have supreme and unique access to the Good, then we might be comfortable with the statesman as a master weaver. Or we may not. Rationally speaking, there may not be a perfect metaphor to capture what we want in a leader. Perhaps this is because leaders cannot ever be everything we might want. It is our limitations we need to come to terms with.

I would invite those readers of this blog to consider further the metaphor of Jesus Christ as the “Good Shepherd,” who does not sacrifice the flock to his interests, but in fact sacrifices himself to theirs. Is this metaphor perfectly apt? Or is it limited in some way?

Norman Sandridge teaches ancient history at Howard University in Washington, DC.