Symbolism is defined as the use of symbols to represent ideas or qualities. In the context of leadership, symbolism can often be about the optics a leader exhibits and how others perceive these optics.
Imagine your work team participates in a physical fitness activity where you run together in formation for a given number of miles. Imagine the big boss is incredibly physically fit and leaves the team in the dust every single time. He doesn’t circle back during the run to motivate the rest of the team. He completes the run and looks at team members with disdain if they fell back and/or broke formation.
Symbolically, it can make one think that if the big boss is willing to leave people behind in a run would he do the same in other situations? The optics—actually seeing people left behind then looked at with disdain—creates and feeds one’s perceptions. In this case, it’s a negative perception.
As a young Marine, the big boss was our battalion commander, a Lt. Colonel. Not only did he leave many in the dust (he was capable of running three miles in about fifteen minutes), but what was most troubling was the way he behaved outside of PT (physical training). On more than one occasion, he gave many of us the impression that he was more about himself than about the troops. Perceptions—right or wrong—can turn into reality. Unfortunately, he more often than not fed those perceptions through optics that looked and felt negative to many of us.
Then came new leadership.
A new battalion commander assumed duty, a southern man who affectionately called us his “Bubbas.” He didn’t leave anyone behind during runs (especially those runs on sand with boots) or humps. (A hump is a Marine Corps term for a long, arduous, painful, high-speed, back-breaking, blister-producing, wanna-cry-for-mama hike). For anyone who was falling back—perhaps from shin splints, a bad cold, or whatever (there weren’t that many; we were mostly physically fit)—he had the entire battalion circle back to pick up anyone who was behind. We continued to benefit from his leadership but this time in a new setting: the deployment to Somalia.
Prior to leaving the base in the Somalia capital, Mogadishu, for supply truck security runs that ensured food supplies were delivered safely inland where people were starving, the first thing I heard the Lt. Col. ask during his “management team” meetings (my tent was next to his) was, “How are the troops?” “What can we do for them?” “Is there anything I should know?” His focus was on us. He never failed to put the troops at the top of his meeting agenda. How good it felt to know he cared. He also took the initiative to help a local school/orphanage. In addition to our regular duties, he encouraged us to help the orphanage. He made frequent trips to the site to see how we might be able to meet some of their needs.
To be fair to the first battalion commander, perhaps he intentionally acted the way he did because he had some leadership rationale he grew up with or was taught. Perhaps the attitude was, if the “old man” can run fast, then you young folks must motivate yourselves to do the same! The problem is that many of my peers and I didn’t see it this way. The optics—or symbolism—underneath what he did failed to motivate many of us. For us, he often left a few troops behind. As young whippersnappers, without really knowing how to articulate the concept of “symbolism,” we knew what we felt. After a run or hump, the only thing we needed is to look at each other as we shrugged our shoulders and shook our heads. We didn’t need the word “symbolism” to express ourselves. Through body language we understood our shared experience. It’s worth noting that my intent is not to demean the Lt. Col. For all I know, he was and continues to be a decent father, husband, son, brother, and friend. My purpose is to illustrate the differences between leadership styles and their long-lasting impact from the perspective of a young enlisted person.
There can be a healthy debate about which Lt. Colonel was more effective. Some may argue that the first Lt. Colonel had the more effective leadership style because he demonstrated physical feats of strengths and by leaving people in the dust he was motivating them to try harder. I get this argument. It’s a valid point. However, I tend to use evidence as my compass. The evidence showed that most of us were much more engaged and motivated under the new battalion commander.
Thinking long-term and for those considering transitioning out of the military, I think it’s also important to think about what leadership style is most effective if moving to a different sector. For example, in education where it requires, in my opinion, a collaborative and servant leadership style marbled with balanced accountability support and pressures.
Outside of the military, I often think about educational leaders and the kind of optics they produce. For example:
- Does a school principal make it a point a few times per month (or week) to go out into morning drop-off and afternoon pick up to help direct traffic and greet parents?
- Does a college president communicate the importance of race and equity by "calling in" or "calling out" people? (The former uses pedagogy and empathy to create allies and sustain the equity work. The latter often dismisses people's personal stories, paints people with broad strokes, and makes some people feel like they're the enemy--compromising the crucial equity work.)
- Does a superintendent mentor her principals or base the relationship on school accountability pressures only?
- Does a college president make it a point to eat and talk with students in the cafeteria several times throughout the year?
- Does a principal hire and evaluate or does he spend time mentoring and equipping the faculty and staff he supports?
- Does a college president forgo a pay raise when the rest of the campus personnel are not afforded one?
- Does a college president meet with janitorial staff to get to know who they are and to garner ideas to improve the facilities?
- Does a college vice president or dean offer a friendly gesture by baking or buying food for his staff a few times a year?
- Does a superintendent spend most of his time at every conference and busy networking or does he make a point of regularly visiting classrooms and working alongside educators with the daily challenges of teaching and learning?
- Does a college president use first person singular and draw attention to himself in public settings or does he use first person plural and refer to the collective accomplishments of the campus team?
- Does a faculty member (they're leaders too!) show students that he genuinely cares about them by providing the best quality instruction possible or is he unfazed by low student success rates because complacency and student blame has become part of the norm?
- Does a dean and vice president support the guided pathways coordinator or do they sit on the sidelines, heckling without engaging in the work?
Educational leaders should not compromise substance for contrived symbolism. For example, if a principal has parent conferences in the morning for a week, he should not cancel a parent conference to direct traffic. My point is that educational leaders can invent energy and provide symbolic leadership through more direct and substantive ways.
Principal Greets Parents
I believe that the key to a leadership style that symbolizes a strong sense of collaboration and servitude lies in its authenticity. There are a multitude of books and articles on “servant” leadership but a leader shouldn’t employ this style as a check list. I don’t recommend the attitude that basically states, “The literature says to do this, check!”
It should come from the heart.
As for the Somalia deployment in ’92-’93, most of us know about the unfortunate outcome. For my part, I sometimes need to remind myself that in the short-run we did manage to save many people from starvation. In the long-run, one person’s leadership style inspired me (and I’m sure many others) to be better a person and write about it decades later.
Trust in leadership is earned. Symbolism matters.