Symbolic Leadership Actions

18 01 2009

The Power of Symbolic Leadership Action

The Power of Symbolic Leadership Action (Photo by Jeb Kriigel, all rights reserved)

The inaugural train rolled out of Philadelphia and chugged into Washington D.C. carrying our future leaders, President-elect Barack Obama and Vice-President-elect Joe Biden and their family members. It was an  skillful display of symbolic leadership action. Symbolic leaders use symbols, traditions, and stories to help people to buy into their vision, get on-board the train to change (just had to say that!), reinterpret past experience, portray shared values and needs, and finally rally followers to act on behalf of the organization’s goals.

Let’s take a quick look at how symbolic leadership unfolds . . . Symbolic leaders are good at placing their vision on a center stage for all to see and experience. Experiencing the vision is important – individuals must become emotionally connected to the bigger picture; be a part of something so large, and so important, that we have to do the vision together or it will fail.

Why do the symbolic leadership actions, such as the inaugural train ride, captivate and motivate people to work toward difficult goals? Bolman and Deal (1997) suggest that symbolism works when it is portrayed this way: “The past is usually a golden one, a time of noble purposes, of great deeds, of heroes and heroines. The present is a time of trouble, challenge, or crisis; a critical moment when we have to make fateful choices. The future is a dream; a vision of hope and greatness, often linked directly to greatness in the past” (p. 316). Symbolic leadership actions are effective when they resonate with the hopes, dreams, and values of the followers – AND the benefits and rewards are perceived as realistically obtainable.

What do you think and feel about these symbolic aspects of the inaugural train ride: it is a vintage train car, the trip path traces Lincoln’s 1861 ride, the route begins in Philadelphia and ends in Washington, D.C., Obama’s train stops to pick up Joe Biden (a regular train commuter), Obama cites from history (Abraham Lincoln, Dr. Martin Luther King, John F. Kennedy, the Declaration of Independence), the train stops at significant points of national interest, quick speeches acknowledge the current turbulent times (economy, war), and the new leaders recognize clues to success lie in the lessons of the past.

There is probably more symbolism than that – but I’ll let you research it! Symbolic leadership actions works when the leader is in tune with the followers’ deepest values and most pressing needs. Leaders are most likely to be effective when the symbolic actions they use are sincere, believable,  there is a real possibility that the vision can be fulfilled AND the needs of the followers are both acknowledged and  met.

Bolman, Deal. (1997). Reframing Organizations.

Train Photograph by K. Jeb Kriigel.  All rights reserved. Used by permission.




2 responses

23 01 2009

Great photo, Erna!
I agree that symbolic leadership is important, and many leaders totally ignore this part of leadership. We need symbols that can touch our emotions and even our hearts. On the other hand, many leaders are all symbol and little substance. That’s where values and principles come in and making the hard choices based on those. And the hardest choices are the ones that risk costing the leader his or her position. That’s the kind of leader we really crave, and when a leader like that adds a meaningful symbolic gesture, it does touch our heart.

19 03 2011
Anna Marie Dube

Thank You very much for this nice definition of what a symbolic leader is and does. I have know many in my life, which forever are in my mind, my soul, my spirit and my heart. So many different people can be symbolic leaders and we can get deeply interested and agreeable with the words that one speaks. To me speaking is great and yes, we express ourselves through words and writing, because that is what we really want, but the challenge is being able to take action on it. We can try all we want to work on many different problems at once, but we are most likely to fail, for we need time and time comes at it’s own pace. Most importantly, we need to take action. We write faster than we can handle the problem or contribute to the issue. Somethings are simple to accomplish it just takes us, to have the want and the need to accomplish our duties, goals. What is most important is not being afraid to ask for help when there is something you want to accomplish and if everyone is true in what they say that they stand for then they too can contribute to the issue that is at hand. Taking on too many at once can lead to failure if all the resources, help, and I really do not like to say this but capital needs to be there too. Capital is always an issue, but with prayer and many helping anything can be accomplished.

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