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John Baldoni
Leadership author

John Baldoni

John Baldoni is a leadership consultant, coach, and regular contributor to the Harvard Business Review online. His most recent book is Lead Your Boss: The Subtle Art of Managing Up.

Crazy Horse in action

Q: A cloud of volcanic ash grounds European airlines and the chief executives of KLM and British Airways join their crews on test flights to show that it is safe to fly. What do these actions say about the importance of symbolic involvement by top leaders in responding to crises?

Much of what senior leaders do is symbolic. You can consider them as heads of state for their organizations and as such they represent the vision, mission and values of their organization. But their role is not symbolic per se; it is based upon behavior. And so when CEOs of British Airlines and KLM climbed aboard the test flights into volcanic ash-laden skies they did more than symbolize; they acted. By riding with the crew they put the credo "ask nothing of others you wouldn't do yourself" into action.

Every organization should be so fortunate as to be led by men and women who know how to lead from the front. Not long ago I was a first-hand witness to such an example at a corporate seminar I was conducting. The company was faced with a hostile takeover. Before the seminar began, the vice president for the group stood up and spoke about what was one everyone's mind: the immediate future and its impact on them.

The vice president calmly and rationally explained the situation and talked about his expectations for what the group needed to do next. He also made it known that if such a merger occurred, his own job security hung in the balance. The executive then put himself front and center into the crisis, offering to meet individually with each of his managers and his teams so the employees could hear directly from him. He then took questions and within a half-hour the tension of the moment dissipated and the group was able to focus on the seminar. What the vice president did was set the right example and support it with concrete actions.

When words are not backed by actions, employees lose faith. A recent poll conducted by Maritz Research in March showed that only 11 percent employees surveyed "strongly agree" that managers "showed consistency between words and actions." Worse, only seven percent of these employees "strongly agree that they trust senior leadership to look out their best interest."

Symbols speak loudly, but behaviors are the ultimate test. When members of an organization or employees in an organization see their leaders put themselves at risk, or at least experience the hardship of the organization, then they have more faith in their leadership. They earn the trust of their followers.

The Maritz poll provides some hope in this regard. Some 63% of employees "with strong trust in management would be happy to spend the rest of their career with their present company." And 51% said they "would invest money in their company if they could."

Of course symbols have a role. The legendary Oglala Lakota warrior, Crazy Horse, was designated as a "Shirt Wearer" by his tribe. Not only did Shirt Wearers lead in battle; they led on the home front. According to historian Stephen Ambrose in his book, Crazy Horse and Custer, Shirt Wearers hunted the buffalo but they gave away the choicest cuts to the women, children and elderly. Wearing the shirt was the outward expression of their obligation. Giving the bounty away demonstrated the true meaning of sharing. Symbolic leadership has a place but actions matter more.

By John Baldoni

 |  April 20, 2010; 5:10 AM ET
Category:  Corporate leadership Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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