Symbols of leadership

Can leadership (style/approach etc.) be designed as part of an organization design project? I read this question on the Organization Design Forum Linkedin group discussion board. There are 13 comments on it mainly saying 'no'. Just as a point of interest the same question is on the European Organization Design Forum group discussion board with no comments. Why is this? (A different blog topic maybe).

The question set me thinking. In a piece of work I did last year in the US we were looking at moving people out of their private offices and into open plan working. Many of the positional leaders (i.e. those graded as in senior roles) were horrified. They wanted to know – my paraphrase – how people would know they were 'important'.

The symbols of power or status (think red carpet) were part and parcel of their leadership role. And they felt they owned them and were entitled to them. It was part of the leadership culture. It's still somewhat like that. The US Federal Government, for example, allocates "The greatest amount of workspace at the executive levels (300 USF per person) and the least amount of workspace at the support staff levels (64 USF per person)." In the report quoting those figures are other figures from 9 benchmarked organizations. All but one allocates far more space to executives than to junior staff this, in spite of the fact that senior people are more likely to be out of the office than support staff.

There are some in a positional power position who enjoy the trappings that tend to go with it, and others that reject them. Boris Johnson, Mayor of London, is well known in the city as a regular cyclist rather than a luxury car driver, as he said … 'I love cycling. I cycle every day.' I wonder whether those leaders who reject the symbols of power are more effective leaders? A few notably effective social/political change leaders immediately spring to mind: Mahatma Gandhi, Mother Theresa, Nelson Mandela (not that he had a lot of choice), the Dalai Lama. Business leaders in that category of rejecting power and status symbols don't immediately spring to mind. Let me know if you can think of some.

However, I do know of some business leaders who reject these leadership symbols as a kind of inverse power play. So I was intrigued to see this report – with good summary infographc – on executive air travel that states: "The most senior executives are much less stressed by flying in economy-class seats; it is lower-ranking managers who are bothered. The authors suggest this is because GMs and CEOs often set travel policies and therefore wear their economy-class membership as an emblem of shareholder value." And presumably thereby hope to show what effective leaders they are.

So back to the question 'Can leadership (style/approach etc) be designed as part of an organization design project?' Stuart Wigham, who asked the question, elaborates on it saying:

I guess my thoughts are centered around can you fundamentally change an organization leadership approach without changing who the leaders are within a hierarchy (assuming a conventional/traditional organization). I've seen organizations change but I am not convinced I've witnessed this change without shifts in who the leaders are as well as the approach they take. I guess it comes down to the question of can individuals change? My immediate response to this is yes of course, in fact attitudes and behaviors tend to be fleeting and contextually bound so we're changing all the time even if we do not acknowledge it. So it then comes down to a question of underlying belief systems which tend to be more fixed, and in this sense I wonder even if I can shift someone's behavior through manipulation of the environment. (My bolding)

Manipulation of the environment could involve taking away the explicit symbols of leadership including the private offices. It could mean relaxing the dress code – have you noticed that in many organizations the male executives tend to wear suits and ties and the lower graded staff don't, or if lower graded staff do then people think they are acting above their station? For a delightful blog on the symbolism of office clothing read this.

With the idea of symbols in mind I went into a meeting of senior leaders last week in which they spent time talking around the point that 'if we are going to transform the business then we need to change the culture'. What they didn't seem to have a great handle on was that they colluded in the current culture by tacitly adopting and endorsing the symbols of it. I wondered if they would be able to recognise that and then maybe decide to change the symbols.

So, on the spur of the moment I asked all the men in the room to take off their ties. There were about 15 men – only one of whom wasn't wearing a tie at the time (the tech guy which speaks volumes!). So that left 14 people with ties. The most senior person present instantly rose to the challenge and took off his tie. For a brief moment I wondered what would happen if he had refused to. One person did say he wasn't going to, the rest did. One put his back on later in the meeting but the others stuck with tielessness. Later in the afternoon I saw one of the men in another meeting still without his tie and I remarked on it to the person I was with. She said she'd never seen him without a tie before.

The point of this exercise, and because it wasn't planned there wasn't time for any real exploration, was to suggest the idea that culture change and business transformation/redesign could be aided through leaders and others consciously recognizing, changing or removing symbols. Each organization has cultural symbols specific to it. In a previous blog post I mentioned the doors of the building I worked in. They opened by a push button, not by pushing the door. Once the button is pushed the door very, very slowly opens. I think this is an unintended symbol but to me it represents a very powerful cultural indicator.

Symbols are one of the elements examined in The Cultural Web, a well-known approach for looking at an organization's culture, developed by Gerry Johnson and Kevan Scholes in 1992, (see a more recent discussion of this here). They mention car parking spaces as well as office space and layout, other obvious visual symbols are name badges (do they have job titles on or not), uniforms, notice boards, signage, artwork, and so on. (The other cultural elements they discuss are stories, rituals and routines, power and organisational structures, and control systems).

It's often newcomers who notice the organisational symbols because they have to make choices about whether to participate in their meaning. (Should I wear a tie or not?) But longer serving people who've ceased noticing the symbols can bring them into the spotlight to examine their power. I remember an exercise I once did, taken from The Artist's Way at Work which involved photographing my workday. It was fascinating to walk around with a camera really looking at the context and environment through a camera lens, the visual symbols at least became very obvious and thus easier to work with.

So here's a suggestion for you. One workday take photos of all the leadership symbols in your organisation. Consider whether by adding, changing or removing these you or the organizational leaders themselves could redesign their leadership style and approach. I think symbols are a part of what can be consciously designed into an organization and have the potential to change leadership style and approach. What do you think? Let me know.