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Coro Fellows

As part of the Coro Fellows Program in Public Affairs, these 12 Southern California fellows are engaged in a full-time, nine-month, graduate-level leadership training program that prepares individuals for public-affairs leadership.

The Optimus Prime way

In response to this week's leadership question: President Obama this week holds his first state dinner, an occasion devoid of substance but full of symbolic choices concerning everything from the guest list and menu to the entertainment and the first lady's dress. How much is leadership really about this sort of symbolic signaling? How important is it in accomplishing substantive goals?

Symbolism is critical to leadership because leaders transcend their roles and represent ideas by invoking something profound in others. When I was a child, Optimus Prime inspired me as much as any historical figure. When he said "Roll out!" I was ready to go, and when he died, I cried. To this day he still reminds me of courage, strength, and good confronting the forces of evil. Even though Optimus is fictional and his actions don't directly affect the world we live in, his ideas have just as much power to shape the world.

Symbolism has played and will continue to play a vital role in the moments that make up history. Queen Elizabeth I stood resolute in her armor when she made her speech at Tilbury. Generals Grant and MacArthur both signed peace treaties in muddy, war-torn uniforms.
Such actions are statements in themeslves.

Obama's actions as an administrator are critical for this country, but what he represents is just as vital. The human soul requires as much fuel as the human body. --Jimmy Duong

Political theater

What do we miss by concentrating on only the serious and substantive side of politics? Leadership is as much about symbolism as it is about substance. This state dinner, for example, is a way of saying "you matter to us" to Prime Minister Singh and his wife, and more importantly, to India. There is something about pulling out all the stops, about showing that you worked hard and, yes, spent money, to honor a guest. The china, the menu, the guest list, and even the First Lady's dress all play into what is essentially an exciting and glamorous production of political theater.

At first glance it seems silly, even wasteful, to put on such a production when we are in the middle of a recession, but this type of spectacle and symbolism can forge a relationship that leads to substantive discussion and positive action.--Liz Willis

A president's best friend

Substantive goals are important to leadership, but symbolism ensures its existence. Accomplishing concrete goals builds one's reputation as an effective leader. This reputation can then become a symbolic tool that encourages supporters to believe in a leader's abilities.

The power of emotion in politics is no hidden secret. Propaganda, family name, and appearance influence how a leader is viewed. Accordingly, symbolism is the American President's best friend. President Obama ran with the symbols of "hope" and "change," just as past presidents have garnered votes through successfully marketing symbols.

Do our presidents simply embody and produce the symbols they wish to communicate? No. But leadership is fueled by the acceptance of those who follow, and symbolism plays a key role in that equation.

A culture is created and survives from implemented norms. The culture of leadership, in its many forms, survives off of symbolism rather than product. This must change, so I ask myself the following questions. How do we create a leadership position that focuses on results rather than appearance? And can a culture survive without the symbolism required by leadership?--Frank Rodriguez

The Obama show

At the NAACP Centennial celebration this past July, President Obama obliged himself like an ungrateful, uninvited Thanksgiving guest. Without washing his hands or saying grace, he provoked the family into an uncomfortable discussion, aptly noting that, "One of the most durable and destructive legacies of discrimination is the way we've internalized a sense of limitation; how so many in our community have come to expect so little from the world and from themselves."

Nearly a year after his election, Obama's first state dinner symbolizes the unlimited potential of an African-American family. His leadership, any leadership, not only entails an ability to set an agenda and act effectively, but a capacity to shape the thoughts of those that follow. Leadership is an exercise in changing perspectives, crafting dreams, and eventually empowering others.

The Obamas sitting at the head of our nation's table reinforces the idea that a successful black family can indeed be typical. No longer is this notion relegated to the realm of scripted, mid-80's comedy-drama; the state dinner represents a shift in how black families can see themselves.

Towards the end of his speech at the NAACP, Obama recognizes that solutions to the various issues in the African-American community require a change in both policy and mentality. Perhaps the first step in reducing HIV rates, incarceration rates, and poverty rates within the African-American community begins with internalizing the positive example the Obamas provide.

As we watch the president sit down for the state dinner this week, let's remember that it can be a catalyst for future triumphs within the African-American community. Mr. President, let's eat.--Lanre Akinsiku

By Coro Fellows

 |  November 24, 2009; 2:05 PM ET
Category:  Presidential leadership Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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