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Scott DeRue
Leadership professor

Scott DeRue

Scott DeRue is Assistant Professor of Management and Organizations at the University of Michigan Stephen M. Ross School of Business. With Maxim Sytch, he created the student-driven Leadership Seminar discussion group.

The undercover bosses

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?

If the CBS reality show Undercover Boss has taught us anything about leadership, it is that a little bit of symbolic action on the part of senior executives can go a long way toward calming fears, generating excitement, and creating a sense of meaning and purpose for employees.

In the case of KLM and British Airways, CEOs Hartman and Walsh realize the symbolic role they play in defining the current reality for airline customers and employees. By getting on those planes, Hartman and Walsh are showing both employees and customers that they are not going to ask anyone to do something that they would not be willing to do themselves. And by showing that they are not above the crisis, but rather in the crisis with everyone else, Hartman and Walsh are being the not-so-undercover bosses that everyone wants.

Why is this important? Scholars Joel Podolny and Linda Smircich argue that one of the most important roles that leaders play is defining the current reality and the meaning that people place on that reality. In other words, leaders' actions can frame and change situations, and in doing so, enact a system of shared meaning that provides key stakeholders with a basis for organized action.

In this case, Hartman and Walsh are engaging in actions that show everyone who is involved--from the employee who is working over-time to the customer sleeping on a cot in De Gaulle or Heathrow--that TOGETHER they will overcome this crisis.

What most leaders do not realize is that it doesn't take much in the way of symbolism to create this effect. Just every now and then, walk in the shoes of your customers or the boots of your employees. And in times of crisis, make it clear that you are there to serve and are willing to do whatever it takes to pull through a tough situation. Every move a leader makes has symbolic value, so make your moves count!

By Scott DeRue

 |  April 20, 2010; 5:16 AM ET
Category:  Corporate leadership Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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