Sometimes the Only Way to Win is Not to Play
March 26, 2009 ‐ 2 comments
There is at least one of us here at BrandCultureTalk (and of course our beloved Dr. Terrance Deal) who believes emphatically that effective symbolic leadership is critical to an executive’s success and business performance. It was a week where symbolic leadership was under assault. President Obama was criticized for an appearance on the Tonight Show as a frivolous distraction from his real job of addressing the current economic calamity. A client expressed concern over lack of meaningful management participation in her company-wide gathering promoting employee benefit programs. Simultaneously, the entire nation became further unraveled with the realization of the magnitude of AIG executive and strategic partner bonuses. In BrandCultureTalk’s neighborhood, a fifty-something painter knocked on doors attempting to drum up business in the wake of the Homeowner’s Association’s recent request that community members consider voluntary new painting before homes were tagged for non-compliance of HOA standards. The country continues to grind through a gut-wrenching recession – the likes of which no one working today has any true comprehension. When this same neighborhood painter mentions three households on his afternoon circuit losing jobs, it is clear these are extraordinarily trying times. It’s no wonder we are sensitive to the symbolic actions of our leaders. While our troops fighting in Iraq and other war veterans were inspired at the time, it was one of President George W. Bush’s greatest gaffes to land an S-3B Viking on an aircraft carrier with a banner hanging over entitled “Mission Accomplished.” There is no doubt that President Obama is one of most effective multi-taskers on the planet, with a prodigious intellect to back up his ability to shift gears so adroitly. Nonetheless, for the President to cavalierly dismiss questions concerning the appropriateness of his appearing on the Tonight Show – and then commit an unfortunate faux pas during the interview – is not the optimal symbolic leadership that our country or the organizations that undergird it need right now. In fact, it’s often better for a leader to refrain from participating rather than be seen participating in a symbolic gesture that is insensitive to the uneasiness and concern felt by many these days. While we understand that everyone needs to relax after the relentless slog of doing more with less, these tough times require leadership that is measured, considered, and disciplined in every action. And while organizations should not abandon celebration, these times require team building not for self-congratulation, but to build a culture of intensity, vigilance, commitment and performance demanded by reality we currently confront.
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April 10, 2009 1:31 pm
Think of our anonymous postings as a united front of excellence rather than a cloak of anonymity. And we are united in our belief that the symbolic is an indispensable element of effective leadership. That's because we believe that effective leadership involves mobilizing and motivating people. Otherwise, that leader is just telling people what to do. And that's not leadership we can believe in.
April 2, 2009 3:27 pm
Great points, blogger (question: any good reason you guys choose not to identify who posts what?). It's a difficult, maybe even risky argument to make, that symbolic leadership is essential to "actual" leadership. Bearing in mind that charisma is no substitute for competence, I agree wholeheartedly. That's why I was so let down by Obama's joke attempt ( Not just because it was an off-color joke, but because it went against what he stands for in my mind, and presumably in the minds of many who voted for him. The appearance on Leno, which didn't bother me in and of itself, is probably an attempt to stay connected with a youth audience and demonstrate "change," even it's not the kind that helps the economy. Loosely related: a funny story on NPR this morning about him giving the Queen an iPod with American show-tunes on it. On-brand for Obama?

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