16 Qualities of a Superlative Leader – Taking Leadership Personally – The symbolic side of the leader

Keeping Up Appearances

Communication always happens. Even when you are not deliberately sending a text, speaking before a group, speaking with someone, making a call, or any of the other acts we would equate with communicating, leaders are always communicating something.

That is the symbolic nature of the job. Someone somewhere is reading something into what you say and do. Symbols are:

  1. Arbitrary – their meaning is neither fixed nor universal. They gain credence and power based on the setting and the relationship of parties involved.
  2. Ambiguous – they deal in the world of impressions, feelings, reactions, and responses.
  3. Alterative – they change perceptions of reality and therefore change reality itself. They create meaning or, when presented badly or maliciously, they de-mean, detract from meaning.

Superlative leaders understand that they have a part to play in the story that is their life and their company. That there is a job to be done, tasks to complete, ideas to originate, and ground to be gained. But they also understand that it is not a rational, logical, Spock-like position only. They know that they work with and for people who have emotions, think abstractly, and react or respond at times irrationally. But, beyond that, superlative leaders understand that the irrational nature of humans is not completely irrational.

Unscrupulous leaders exploit this. Lacking character and honor, they know they can play the role in such a way to manipulate others to get others to do what the leader wants for himself. They will use their gifts of performance and use of symbols to use others. Superlative leaders won’t even though they could. They do, however, know that what is most important is not what happens but what it means.

A leading role has meaning. It adds something to the story. A leading role is the part of the protagonist, the one who plays the first part. You are the good guy, or at least you should be.

A leading role has entrances…and exits. Yours is not a one man show, let others do that at your funeral. You make appearances and absent yourself. You play a dominant role or a supportive one, but you are always in the wings, always there.

A leading role serves as the one with whom others identify. You become the voice, the face, the persona that is your company or department.

A leading role has relevance. A leader who is irrelevant has moved away from leadership. You know you are effective when who you are, what you believe, what you say, what you indent influences the thinking, attitudes, and actions of those you lead. No influence = no leadership.

A leading role is a mantle taken on. Many of its mannerisms and nuances are learned and assumed for the sake of the performance. Climbing into a higher place of responsibility may certainly mean an alteration of what you do and say.

A leading role is never an act of deception or an attempt to mislead, or at least it shouldn’t be. You are not trying to snooker anyone. You are trying to exert influence without demanding it and so you exploit the devices and actions that will make you even more effective.

Here is my lists of what some of them are:

  1. Symbolic devices – items have power. There are things we use that convey meaning.
      1. Clothing – maybe it’s a suit, a uniform, a vest (different colors mean different things like at Lowes), a cap.
      2. Office – a corner office has more symbolic meaning that a cubicle. How the office is kept conveys meaning too. Is it orderly or messy? It is well-furnished? Well lighted? Some who take the symbolism of devices to an extreme cut down the legs of chairs that sit in front of their desk so that those who come into the office must look up at the person behind the desk. I think this is a bit far, but you get the idea.
      3. Location – Where you stand and where you sit symbolizes something. The head of a group or the head of a table, your role is often played out center stage.
      4. Emblems – a badge, a nametag, epaulets on the shoulders, seals on podiums all symbolize the role.
      5. Accessories – the type of car you drive, the devices you use like a phone, the computer that sits on your desk…or doesn’t.


  2. Communications
    1. Public pronouncements – be presidential, so to speak.
    2. Private correspondence – words have meaning and yours have lots of meaning. Use emails for general and generic stuff. Use the phone or better, a personal face-to-face talk for personal stuff.
  3. Symbolic acts – the power of optics – you are the face of your company, organization, business, department and others are watching
    1. Officiating – ceremonies, official functions, awards events, company picnics and banquets, civic functions, and the like. Be there.
    2. Bestowing awards – act like its important and make it a big deal.
    3. Appearing to be engaged – look like you are paying attention to your job. Superlative leaders understand that personal sacrifices have to be made because of how things appear.
    4. Projecting confidence – speak with authority even if you harbor reservations. Confidence is infectious but doubt is like a raging epidemic.
    5. Taking charge – You’re the one in charge so make the decision, give the directive, speak up.
    6. Maintaining authenticity – In this one I will sound like I am contradicting myself. I said earlier that you put this on like a stage performance but I never am implying duplicity. Be who you are all the time. Talking the talk and walking the walk makes a powerful and influential leader.

Those uncomfortable with the mantle of leadership feel somewhat awkward with this side of things but I want to encourage you to approach it like you would a part in a play. This side of the role of leader really is performance art. Any new skill is awkward at first but soon becomes part of who you are. You are, after all, a superlative leader. Acting like it is completely acceptable.

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