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Symbolic Leadership: What Do You Stand For … or Where Do You Sit?


symbolic leadership


“Symbols can be so beautiful, sometimes.”
~ Kurt Vonnegut, “Breakfast of Champions”

Sandra described the past week of headaches associated with a systems conversion that took place in the call center in which she works as a customer service representative. She outlined the many hiccups and problems they encountered, the way data dropped out of fields, and calls that were habitually misdirected. She described the 14-hour days that would likely go on for another week or so, the intensity of the customers’ expectations, and management’s scrutiny.

When I responded empathetically about how miserable it must have been, Sandra surprised me with her response: “No, it was awesome!” And she went on to explain why.

Sandra reported to a new supervisor, Leah, who had been promoted just before the conversion took place. Unlike her predecessors, who managed these changeovers from their offices via e-mail, Leah moved out of her office to a desk in the middle of the department. She removed all barriers (visual and otherwise) and situated herself right in the eye of the hurricane. And her staff still can’t stop talking about it.

Leah understands the truth behind the clichés that are talked about more than acted upon:

“Everything communicates”

“Walk the talk.”

“Actions speak louder than words.”

Leah understands the value of symbolic leadership. She understands that communication is more than spoken words; it’s the Gestalt of the actions we take and how they are interpreted by others.

Through the behaviors they demonstrate (or don’t), actions they take (or don’t), and choices they make (or don’t), leaders send constant and powerful messages to those around them. What they do (or don’t do) telegraphs their values, priorities, and more. And followers are highly attuned to these messages.

Public actions, traditions, rituals, and even stories communicate volumes for leaders who use them well. But it’s easy to abuse this leadership strategy. People quickly see through the clever stunts, artificial contrivances, and photo-ops of an inauthentic leader trying to manipulate a situation.

Becoming a genuine, skillful, symbolic leader involves more than doing things “for show.” It involves:

  • Enhancing self-awareness. Displaying leadership rather than gimmickry demands a look deep within. What do I stand for? What are my values? How can I bring life to what matters most? Is my ego or conviction driving me? Is what I’m doing about substance or show? These are the questions symbolic leaders must ask (and answer) before taking any action.
  • Redefining “communication. “ Symbolic leadership demands an entirely new vocabulary that goes beyond mere words. Communication extends far beyond the written or verbal realm. As Leah discovered, where one sits communicates. As my friend Adam (an executive who declined a preferred parking space and became an instant hero) discovered, where one parks communicates. Everything communicates, so it’s a matter of making conscious choices about the message and vehicle.
  • Standing in the employee’s shoes. Symbols are all about meaning. And meaning is defined by the receiver. As a result, leaders must always consider their followers. They must anticipate their interpretations, how they’ll internalize things, and what meaning they’ll assign to an act. Only by standing in the employee’s shoes can effective symbolic leaders ensure that their messages resonate.

Symbolic leadership is not showmanship and it doesn’t require dramatic, sweeping acts. It’s about taking a stand and moving it forward. It’s about allowing others to experience your vision and to live your values with you. It’s about acting with intention and congruence. And sometimes it’s as simple as sitting somewhere new.

This post originally appeared at SmartBlog on Leadership.

Image by Miguel Á. Padriñán from Pixabay


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