Leadership: The Use of Symbolism

By | March 12, 2017

[March 12, 2017]  The remains of a massive statue, believed to be of Pharaoh Ramses II, was recently discovered in a slum in Cairo, Egypt.1  The 26-foot statue made of quartzite is believed to be nearly 3,000 years old.  Symbolism2, like the Egyptian statue, is a powerful tool for leaders fulfilling many functions; of the most significance is symbols can help compel desirable behaviors.

Great emotion can be attached to symbols, rendering them inviolate and of such importance that the symbol itself can be greater than human life.  It is the power of such emotion that drives us to do things we would not necessarily do.  That in itself is the essence of leadership; getting people to do what they would not normally do in order to achieve what they want (or not want).

“The best leaders … almost without exception and at every level are master users of stories and symbols.” – Tom Peters, writer on business management practices

We are all familiar with Nazism and its follower’s use of symbolism.  One of the most resistant attributes of the Nazi ideology was that its symbols continue to persist and motivate to this day.  As such they are powerful.  Use of logic, however, is irrelevant when it comes to such symbolism.

For example, a few years ago I wrote an article on characteristics of a bad leader for LinkedIn.  I was criticized for use of a photograph of Hitler and Mussolini in the article, but not for the content of the article itself.  I removed the photo at the request of a LinkedIn editor.  Nazi symbols are only one example of how symbols can generate emotional, often irrational reactions.

What leaders say and do is being observed constantly.  They know that symbolic acts can create a lasting impression and drive behavior because it is psychologically internalized.  Thus, the use of symbolism is not only the purview of senior leaders but for all leaders at every level.

Sometimes use of symbolism by a leader can be more powerful and longer lasting than the typical communication of a leader.  Instead of a memo, email, or PowerPoint presentation, boldly using a symbol works best.  In one military headquarters where I worked overseas, the new commander strongly believed in an open door policy.  When he arrived, he had the door to his office removed.  We never forgot.

On July 3, 1863 my great-great-great grandfather was a color bearer of the Confederate Flag at the Battle of Gettysburg.  The life expectancy of those who bore the flag of either side was such a frequent target that few survived in battle.  Fortunate for me he survived.  But it is testament to the fact that symbols (like a flag) are so powerful that they can stir the greatest of passions.  Use, and often misuse, of symbols by leaders is one lesson none of us should forget.

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  1. http://www.reuters.com/article/us-egypt-archaeology-idUSKBN16G2A2
  2. Symbols can be anything. When humans attach value to an object, idea, or behavior, then it gains power beyond a person.


Author: Douglas R. Satterfield

Hello. I'm Doug and I provide at least one article every day on some leadership topic. I welcome comments and also guests who would like to write an article. Thanks for reading my blog.

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