In every culture, the earliest literature includes sagas of heroic figures who led their people to physical or spiritual victory over internal or external enemies. In Egypt and China we find narratives about pharaohs and emperors and the rise and fall of dynasties that date back more than three thousand years. Ancient Chinese chronicles tell a cyclical story that begins when a dynamic leader leverages disorder and discontent and amasses sufficient force to find a new dynasty. For a time, the new dynasty produces vigorous and far sighted leaders who create a stable and a prosperous state. But eventually corruption spreads,
The symbolic frame of leadership in an organization portrays it as a theatre and a temple. As a theatre, an organization creates a stage on which actors play their roles and hope to communicate the right impression to their audience. As a temple, an organization is a community of faith, bonded by shared beliefs, traditions, myths, rituals and ceremonies. Symbolically, leaders lead through both actions and as they interpret and reinterpret experience. What are the real lessons of history? What is really happening in the world? What will the future bring? What mission is worthy our royalty and investment? Data and analysis offer few compelling answers to such questions. Symbolic leaders interpret experience so as to impart meaning and purpose through phrases of beauty and passion. Symbolic leaders follow a consistent set of practices and scripts.
Symbolic leaders lead by example they demonstrate their commitment and courage by plunging into the fray. In taking risks and holding nothing back, they reassure and inspire others. They use symbols to capture attention and frame experience. In a world of uncertainty and ambiguity, a key function of symbolic leadership is to offer is to offer plausible and hopeful interpretations of experience. They also communicate a vision. One powerful way in which a leader can interpret experience is by distilling and disseminating a vision as a persuasive and hopeful image of the future. A vision needs to address both the challenges of the present and the hopes and values of followers. Vision is particularly important in times of crisis and uncertainty. When people are in pain, when they are confused and uncertain, or when they feel despair and hopelessness, they desperately seek meaning and hope. Where does such a vision come from? One view is that leaders create a vision and then persuade others to accept it. An alternative view is that leaders discover and articulate a vision that is already there, even in an inchoate and unexpressed form. Corporate leaders know very well that what seeds the vision are those imperfectly formed images in the marketing department about what the customers really wanted and those inarticulate mumblings from the manufacturing folks about the poor product quality as opposed to crystal ball gazing in upper levels of the corporate stratosphere. The best leaders are the worst followers. They pay attention to those weak signals and quickly respond to changes in the corporate course.
Give and take
Leadership is a two way street. No amount of charisma or rhetorical skills can sell a vision that reflects only the leader’s values and needs. Effective symbolic leadership is possible only for those who understand the deepest values and most pressing concerns of their constituents. But leaders still play a critical role in articulating a vision by bringing a unique, personal blend of history, poetry, passion, conviction and courage in distilling and shaping direction. Most important, they can choose which stories to tell as a means of communicating a shared quest. Symbolic leaders tell stories. Symbolic leaders often embed their vision in a mythical story – a story about us and about our past, present and future. Us could be a school’s faculty, a plant’s employees, the people of a country or any other audience a leader hopes to reach. The past is usually golden, a time of noble purposes, of great deeds, of legendary heroes and heroines. The present is troubled, a critical moment when we have to make fateful choices. The future is a dreamlike vision of hope and greatness, often tied to past glories. This helped Ronald Reagan, a master story teller, as we read online, to become America’s thirty ninth president. Reagan’s golden past was rooted in the frontier, a place of rugged, sturdy, self reliant men and women who built a great nation. They took care of themselves and their neighbours without interference from a monstrous national government. It was an America of small towns and volunteer fire departments. America had fallen into a crisis and Reagan offered a promising new vision; a return to America greatness by getting government off the backs of the American people and restoring traditional values of freedom and self – reliance. The story line worked for Reagan and resurfaced twenty years later for a Reagan acolyte, George W. Bush. Such stories succeed because we want to believe them rather than scrutinize their historical validity or empirical support. Even a flawed story will work if it taps persuasively into the experience, values and hopes of listeners. Wise leadership.
Symbolic leaders respect and use history. If leaders assume that history starts with their arrival, they typically misread their circumstances and alienate their constituents. Wise leaders attend to history and link their initiatives to the values, stories and heroes of the past. Even as she unleashed massive changes at HP, Fiorina told Bill and Dave stories and insisted on her fidelity to the HP way. It might have worked had she not displayed a tin ear for the deeper values and folkways of HP culture.
Though leadership is universally accepted as a cure for all organizational ills, it is also widely misunderstood. Many views of leadership fail to recognize its relational and contextual nature and its distinction from power and position. Shallow ideas about leadership mislead managers. A multiframe view provides a more comprehensive map of a complex and varied terrain. From the literature that I have reviewed, it is clear that early on, models of managerial leadership were narrowly rational. In the 1960s and 1970s, human resource leadership became fashionable. In the recent years, symbolic and political leadership have become more prominent and the literature abounds with advice on how to become a powerful or visionary leader. Ideally, managers combine multiple frames into a comprehensive approach to leadership. Wise leaders understand their own strengths, work to expand them, and build diverse teams that can offer an organization leadership in all frames, i.e. structural, political, human resource and symbolic frame.