Change Symbolism

Al Gorman Change Leave a Comment

As the weekend of April 2nd & 3rd concludes most of us will have heard something about the pope’s passing, and his leadership of the catholic church, over the past quarter century. Without opening the door to debate on the merits of one set of religious beliefs or another there are some lessons regarding leadership effectiveness that might be gleaned from John Paul II.

This was an individual who clearly has been acknowledged with applying influence toward significant change, particularly in light of relations with other religious institutions, and with the fall of the iron curtain and the demise of wide spread communism in the eastern bloc. Concurrently, many would interpret his leadership as conservative and orthodoxical. What lessons might we learn regarding leadership from this individual? And, in particular what might we learn about influencing and inspiring significant and meaningful change?

Karol Wojtyla’s leadership lessons are applicable not only within the domain of leading a religious institution but are also relevant to political, social, and corporate leadership. Leadership is leadership! It is the leader who inspires our understanding of the world and who assists us in the assignment of meaning within the unique cultural beliefs we espouse, whether at work, or in life. He or she is judged to be a great leader or a poor one, one worthy of his or her post, or one unworthy; an oppressor or a liberator.

It is within the context of the past that we assign meaning to life and it is within this context that we are drawn to interpret the present circumstances. Each one of us is the sum of our life experiences. When seeking employment, the prospective employer requests a resume and asks “tell me about everything you’ve accomplished.” The candidate is not asked what it is he or she will provide in the future and there is a relative assumption that the employer can expect a continuation of the past from the potential employee. Alas, our lives are lived not so much in terms of what we have yet to achieve but rather what we have achieved and how this validates the present and perhaps even limits the future. Absent symbolic intervention we would all be quite content to live life as a continuation of the past. Why is this? The past is familiar, it’s comfortable, it’s known and we have interpreted it sufficiently (correctly or incorrectly) such that it is understood. Of course there is no past, nor is there a future; there is only the here and now, yet we fail to live life in the context of the present for as human beings we have the innate desire to assign meaning to life and to have that meaning provide the inspiration that motivates us in the present.

So, as I arrive to work this morning I expect that everything will occur exactly as it did yesterday and I expect that tomorrow and the day after that will be the same. For the leader who is committed to change it is imperative that he or she acknowledge the past. We need to validate the past and need to present change within the context that there is so much, perhaps all, of what has occurred that has allowed for our presence today. The leader’s change message needs to inspire. It is one that compels the organization to action because the employees have interpreted that the leader understands the future and that he or she is defining the context that is essential for security and prosperity tomorrow, linking it sufficiently to the stablitiy that we have derived from our past experience . The past is never as troublesome as the future for we have survived the past and are here today.

From John Paul II’s leadership we might learn that he inspired a vision that defined the end of oppressive forces in the communist countries of eastern Europe. He defined the value associated with acknowledging the entitlement of each unique religious belief to live in harmony among its associates and he employed symbolic gestures to validate that which he defined. Transformation manifested itself first in the manner in which he engaged himself with his followers; accessible, human and transcending the boundaries of class within the catholic church: the most traveled pope in history who personally touched so many of his faithful. How might this be applicable to corporate or political leadership? Obviously the leader who connects with his or her constituents can expect to be endeared to those who form his or her followership. Religious boundaries were transcended because he stood in a mosque and a synagogue and left a personal letter to ammend past condemnation of Jews. In distinguishing the significance of change we are concerned with how the symbolic act inspired the formation of a new interpretation. Is this not relevant in inspiring change within any organization? The symbolic act of placing firmly in action that which one has declared as intention is what has occured here.

Consider how this can be applied within a work organization where employees feel oppressed? Perhaps there is class distinction and the act of tearing down the executive washroom, or disbanding preferential parking for senior employees will be interpreted as a new beginning for those employees who feel confined. Simply stating we plan to change, absent the symbolic gesture, leaves the individual setting forth to validate all of the reasons why what the leader has declared is wrong. The employee attempts to assign meaning in the context of the past and is bound that his or her interpretations of the occuring world are merely confirmation that nothing has changed including the leader who is setting forth to betray the employees into a false declaration. Provide the symbol and the interpretation will change and the employee will set out to validate from the same set of circumstances why the occuring world is now different.

Proficient leadership, in inspiring change, will be cognizant of the significance of symbolism in breaking through an existing culture in the creation of a new one. The leader’s first task is to demonstrate with his or her own actions that managerial leadership has changed and when, and only when, the interpretation is exactly that will the employees of the organization change toward the direction of the stated objective.

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