Leaders Understand the Power of Symbolism
“The world is for thousands a freak show; the images flicker past and vanish; the impressions remain flat and unconnected in the soul. Thus they are easily led by the opinions of others, are content to let their impressions be shuffled and rearranged and evaluated differently.” — Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, 1776
There are an infinite number of ways to gather information at present, and we all have our preferences.
My kids are glued to their phones, but get their news and information primarily through Instagram and YouTube.
As you may have guessed, I tend to prefer text (although I’ve been experimenting with video lately). But if you pay attention, you’ll notice that every image in this newsletter is chosen carefully as well.
Al of these modes of communication convey information. And leaders understand the power of words, media, and even symbols.
Take the way President Volodymyr Zelensky demonstrates his leadership:
His actions match his words, and there is no mistaking his courage and ferocity in standing up to his oppressors.
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“Language is the armory of the human mind and at once contains the trophies of its past and the weapons of its future conquests.” — Samuel Taylor Coleridge, 1817
Five Portraits Are Worth 1,000 Words
Every president gets to decide how to decorate the Oval Office. In Joe Biden’s case, he chose presidential historian Jon Meacham to help with the task, knowing how much symbolism comes with the surroundings of this storied room.
Gone is the lone portrait of George Washington. Instead, Franklin Roosevelt is in the center, flanked on one side by Washington and Abraham Lincoln, and on the other side by Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson.
In an interview with historian Heather Cox Richardson, author of the Letters From an American newsletter (an excellent newsletter, by the way), President Biden explains the significance of some of them:
But the video from Prof. Richardson — and I urge you to watch the entire thing — is itself symbolic in a surprising number of ways.
It takes place in the China Room of the White House, a very sparsely decorated room, made to hold the collections of china of the presidents. It is less ostentatious than other formal White House rooms, making it feel more intimate and down to earth.
The fire crackles in the fireplace, making it seem even more cozy and homey. Perhaps even reminiscent of FDR’s fireside chats.
The president’s command of history (and facts!), his love of teaching, his keen understanding of human nature, his willingness to spend time on details of domestic and international events, his eagerness to share the credit, and his knowledge that representation matters — all of these things show what kind of a leader he is.
And it ought to go without saying that this kind of conversation obliterates the ridiculous claims and derogatory statements about his mental acuity.
“A man is not idle, because he is absorbed in thought. There is visible labor and there is an invisible labor.” — Victor Hugo
You don’t always need to be talking to communicate. Silence can be powerful.
Symbols take many forms, and an absence of something tells a story as well.
What you don’t say is revealing, both in terms of what you support and what you’re unwilling to stand up for.
Pay attention to how you use different forms of communication to convey your messages.
Leaders know that everything communicates.
Thanks, and I’ll see you on the internet.
Can I help coach you or your team? I’m available for speaking as well as advisory work. Let me know if you’d like to set up a call.