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Howard Gardner

Howard Gardner

Howard Gardner is the Hobbs Professor of Cognition and Education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and Senior Director of Harvard Project Zero.

Time for substance

In general, for anyone in a leadership position, what is often called "symbolic conduct" is very important. In addition to the signals surrounding a state dinner, there is also behavior at meetings: where does the leader sit; does he or she listen as well as talk; does the leader take phone calls or give his/her full attention; does he/she drum fingers or riffle through papers or consult the Blackberry overtly or covertly?

In the case of Pres. Obama, however, he has already passed the "symbolic conduct" test. All who are not totally brainwashed can see he has an excellent grasp of symbolic conduct, and in fact seems to have completely internalized its essentials. He rarely sends out the wrong signals and, when he does, he is quick to correct -- as in the case of the arrest of Henry Lewis Gates this past summer; or his condescending "you're likable enough" remark and gesture to Hillary Clinton during one presidential debate for the presidential debate.

If anything, the Obama presidency has been so focused on symbolic conduct that sometimes symbols have become, or seemed to become, a substitute for policy. Does he bow to foreign leaders and, if so, how much? Does he travel to all the right spots, and if so, for what reason(s)? If I were advising the president, I would stress that symbolic conduct can only go so far, that he should not spend much time thinking or worrying about it, and that instead he has to emphasize his concern with substance above all else.

When he announces his policy on Afghanistan, he needs to go to extra lengths to explain why he took so much time, the consequences of a wrong strategic choice and on what rationale he based his final decision. In so doing, he should emphasize the difference from Bush-era "shoot first" policies.

Put differently, given the current emphasis in the blogosphere on the hermeneutics of symbolic conduct, the American and the world public need to be reminded that, at the end of the day, it is substance and not symbolism which makes the crucial difference.

By Howard Gardner

 |  November 23, 2009; 2:03 PM ET
Category:  Presidential leadership Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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