Leader As Symbol
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 magical or symbolic role.
Oddly, this is one of the constraints upon 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 most clearly in those who have shaped their companies through their personalities. Steve Jobs is Apple and Apple is Steve Jobs. This is not true only for the employees, but the stockholders whose hopefulness rises and falls on rumors of his health.
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 signal value. For a few close friends you may still be Dorothy or Ahmed or Seymour, but for many more you are the company.
Your symbolic friend,