I was born in Colorado and grew up in Southern California where the only remnant of formal address is reserved for public school teachers. My children’s teacher was “Ms. Crawford” in school, but our minister was “Pastor Bob.” I could have insisted that the kids’ friends call me Mr. Riddle but I would have been the only such parent and subject to even more ridicule from teenagers who knew I was irrelevant. These days everybody is known by their personal name and we see this leveling as something good…democratic, egalitarian, freeing.

So, it came as something of a surprise when in the 70s I took an internship in a California Episcopal church and noticed that everyone called the minister “Father.” I’d known plenty of clergy, including Episcopalians, and none were so formal, so I asked him why that was. “Sometimes people don’t need another ‘Chuck.’ They need a Father Jones.” That was my introduction to the symbolic value of the leader.

Among leaders I’ve coached, one of the most difficult transitions is the one from person to symbol. It’s not that one stops being a person. Rather, the body politic needs symbols that can provide a rallying point. People may not read the Constitution of the United States, but they need it to be there. Flags are more obvious symbols of our collective identity, but people are, too. This explains the demand to see our leaders. Consultants advise presidents and CEOs to “make themselves more visible.” Visibility in leaders is important because they play a symbolic role.

Oddly, this is one of the constraints on senior leadership because this role has little obvious content. It is nearly all emotional force and it is strangely important for the shaping of organizational culture. The personality expressed on the stage stands for the culture of the organization and we see it clearly in those who have shaped their companies through their personalities, like Steve Jobs and Apple.

Leaders are real people, certainly, but part of their duty to the organization is fulfilled in their flag value. Unless you created the organization and still head it, you will need to decide what elements of the existing culture you will work to change and what you will inhabit. Either way, the higher you rise in your organization the more seriously you need to take your symbolic value.

In what ways does your visibility, or lack of visibility, impact your organization’s culture?

Doug Riddle

4 thoughts on “Leader as Symbol

  1. Your post directly reflects the importance of Ethical Leaders in America. Leaders do act as symbols to employees and specifically when it comes to their own ethical behaviors and the rules and regulations they enforce as leaders. In line with your post literature points to three specific theories to further explain why leaders are so influential including Social Information Processing Theory (Salancik & Pfeffer, 1978), Social Learning Theory (Bandura, 1977), and Social Exchange Theory (Blau, 1964). Pretty much all of these theories get at the importance of learning what is right and wrong from mentors and doing onto others what you would want them to do to you (hopefully that is something ethical).

  2. Your post directly reflects the importance of Ethical Leaders in America. Leaders do act as symbols to employees and specifically when it comes to their own ethical behaviors and the rules and regulations they enforce as leaders. In line with your post literature points to three specific theories to further explain why leaders are so influential including Social Information Processing Theory (Salancik & Pfeffer, 1978), Social Learning Theory (Bandura, 1977), and Social Exchange Theory (Blau, 1964). Pretty much all of these theories get at the importance of learning what is right and wrong from mentors and doing onto others what you would want them to do to you (hopefully that is something ethical).

  3. Doug Riddle says:

    Nice capture of a key implication, I/O Psych Girl. I wonder if you’ve given any thought to the way that our visible leaders shape our identity as a member of the group? It’s not just that our behavior is shaped by our models, but one possible avenue for that shaping is the extent to which our individual sense of identity is conditioned by the frame of our social identity as a group member. You might be interested in a presentation senior research scientist Marion Ruderman created a while back: http://www.ccl.org/leadership/research/lad/resources/4_Ruderman.pdf It provides a nice framework for thinking about intragroup conflict based on the dynamics of social identity.
    DDR

  4. Doug Riddle says:

    Nice capture of a key implication, I/O Psych Girl. I wonder if you’ve given any thought to the way that our visible leaders shape our identity as a member of the group? It’s not just that our behavior is shaped by our models, but one possible avenue for that shaping is the extent to which our individual sense of identity is conditioned by the frame of our social identity as a group member. You might be interested in a presentation senior research scientist Marion Ruderman created a while back: http://www.ccl.org/leadership/research/lad/resources/4_Ruderman.pdf It provides a nice framework for thinking about intragroup conflict based on the dynamics of social identity.
    DDR

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