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Warren Bennis

Warren Bennis

Warren Bennis is University Professor and Distinguished Professor of Business at the University of Southern California. His newest book is 'Still Surprised: A Memoir of a Life in Leadership.'

Loaded with substance

There is a telling and habitually ignored contradiction in the question based on the faulty assumption that "symbolic choices" are "devoid of substance."

Symbolic choices and acts are loaded with substance, though not necessarily spelled out in wonky policy statements. History is a chronicle of symbolic acts. The one that first comes to mind goes back to 1588 when Queen Elizabeth departed from Buckingham Palace in the Royal carriage to Tilbury to greet the victorious British armada as they docked. She spent hours beforehand, preparing a speech and dressing in a carefully tailored 40-pound breast plate, to appear as brave as those troops she was welcoming. Her speech to the "loving troops" is engraved in English history.

Caesar paid special attention to the drape of his toga before every public appearance. In World War II, most of us knew of FDR's disabilities, and yet he traveled to North Africa to praise those U.S. and British armies who brought the fabled Rommel to his knees. It was a key turning point in the war. Roosevelt also visited air force bases in England. Were those trips devoid of substance?

Is it meaningless that the guest of honor at President Obama's first State Dinner is the Prime Minister of India, given our recently strained relationship? Did Obama's speech in Cairo make any difference? Might it have led to the continuing instability in Iran's ruling class? Was Reagan's 1983 remarkable speech in Lebanon after the massacre of hundreds of Marines without substance?

I'm sure there are any number of vacuous ceremonial tchotkes that mean nothing and are "bridges to nowhere." Had President Bush shown up at Katrina the day it hit rather than "a few days later," would his sudden drop in approval ratings -- perhaps a turning point in his presidency -- have occurred? Did his "symbolic choice" lack substance? I leave our readers with those questions.

By Warren Bennis

 |  November 30, 2009; 6:13 AM ET
Category:  Presidential leadership Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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Leadership is in many respects about being seen and seen doing the right things. Leading is about being out front and showing the way to your vision or toward a solution whether it is on your HS sports team or as the President of the United States. Leadership is symbolic because to lead you have to be seen doing the right things and heard giving a clear vision.

Posted by: G2A2K | November 30, 2009 4:04 PM
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