As leaders, we know that we must be clear about our guiding principles and also stand up for our beliefs.  Eloquent speeches, mission statements, and even articles about common values and vision are important, but they aren’t nearly enough. As leaders, we must embody our principles. Deeds are far weightier than words, yet they must be consistent. It is at this juncture of principles and behavior that the symbols of leadership become concrete and can take on a life of their own within a community. Leadership is always embodied in symbols. 

Here are some examples.

Positive: A president dedicates one hour a day to walking around campus, visiting staff and classes. These “walk-arounds” become a symbol of the president’s commitment to the community.

Negative: Financial concerns force a president to eliminate plans for a faculty lounge in the new building. The absence of that faculty lounge comes to symbolize the president’s hostility toward the faculty.

Positive: The president always keeps an open Bible on her desk for study. That Bible represents her commitment to keep the community and her presidency rooted in the Word.

Negative: The board agrees to build the president a new house on campus. The president’s house becomes a symbol of self-service within the administration, rather than a focus on students.

Positive: A student scholarship fund is linked to the planting of a tree in the school’s commons. As the tree grows, so too does the reminder of the central role of students to the seminary.

Negative:  A new administrative cabinet position comes to represent a “bloated administration” instead of a commitment to growing the faculty.

These symbols, both positive and negative, can incarnate the principles and behaviors of a leader for many within the community. If fact, these symbols are so powerful that they might come to completely represent a leader’s principles, fairly or unfairly.

Some of these symbols are linked to a president’s past vocational roles: a successful pastor, a missionary, a civil rights leader, a bishop, a “first” (woman, African American, Asian American, non-clergy, ecumenical leader, etc.), a fundraiser, or a business leader. A building can especially take on symbolic value: a new chapel, the president’s house, a new student dormitory, a faculty lounge, a coffee shop, or a community garden. Other symbols emerge from the life of the community. They just happen. They aren’t always fair or accurate and, once established, can be hard to change.

Symbols, informed by behaviors, are how principles and vision become “flesh.” Identifying symbols is instructive, but using symbols to articulate your vision and principles is the real art of leadership. Intentionally creating symbols can be one of the best ways for leaders to articulate their vision and principles in ways that are powerful, effective, and lasting. It’s the missing element in many strategic plans -- how to symbolize the plan.

What are the symbols of your leadership?