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?
What leader doesn't have a favorite Shackleton story? Mine shows how leaders can inject quiet symbolism even into the day to day - it's inspired me on many occasions and has proven through experience that symbolism doesn't have to be dramatic, but it's a big factor in keeping a team together and getting results.
Early in his journey to the South Pole, while leaving Buenos Aires, Shackleton's First Officer got a line tangled in the ship's propeller, an embarrassing nautical mistake for which he expected to be disciplined. Shackleton, however, quietly helped the officer repair the damage, and then never again mentioned the incident. For the crew, the message was clear: we all can foul up but the professional promptly fixes the mistake, and moves on.
This is a simple lesson I've found works in a number of different circumstances. For example, a few years ago my organization was planning a transformative reorganization-everything was set when, at the last minute, the market shifted and the plan had to be abandoned.
Imagine the turmoil after months of upheaval. There was no lack of blame to go around and plenty of opportunity for recriminations. But, remembering Shackleton, through my conduct I made it plain that the past was past. I took no sides, pointed no fingers, and had only one agenda - quickly executing a new growth plan.
And last year, during the downturn, we came full circle. We acquired a major competitor - a dicey process with a high failure rate. But, remembering the lessons of our reorganization, we treated our new partners as peers, not acquisitions. We welcomed them into our culture, celebrated their skills and accomplishments, and solicited their advice. And even in the space of months, the new business is working.
As the great polar explorer shows, then, symbolic leadership need not be risky. Keep the rope out of the propeller. Fix it if gets caught. No matter what, keep sailing.
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