Correction to This Article
Part of an entry in the On Leadership feature in the Nov. 29 Business section, from Johns Hopkins business school dean Yash Gupta, was originally published by the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum. Information referring to Roosevelt's 1939 state dinner with King George VI information should have been presented as a quotation, with attribution to the museum. The lack of attribution was inadvertent, Gupta says.

How much of leadership is symbolic?

By On Leadership
Sunday, November 29, 2009

Beth A. Brooke is global vice chair of public policy, sustainability and stakeholder engagement at Ernst & Young and is a member of the firm's Global Management Group and its Americas Executive Board.

Certainly the symbolic gestures of leadership are important. A big part of any leader's job is the diplomacy he or she exercises in engaging with various stakeholders, the goal being to understand the stakeholder's wants, needs and agenda. Diplomacy is an art, which is where symbolic gestures come into play.

On the global stage of diplomacy, symbolic gestures are even more important and less forgiving. They indicate not only an art of leadership but also a respect for, and understanding of, cultures. Even more importantly, they indicate a level of empathy and caring about the stakeholder's wants, needs and expectations. Great leaders understand the art of diplomacy and use it more naturally and effectively than others.

In the 21st century, with the command-and-control style of leadership gone, diplomatic leadership defines the better leaders, and symbolic gestures are a part of that. But the 21st century brings with it a new twist.

Our younger generations want to know who is invited to the leader's casual, private dinner. They are continually on a quest for authenticity. They want to know that the symbolic gestures at the comparable state dinners of any leader align with the values demonstrated at the casual, private dinner.

For any leaders, there's the rub. If public and private behavior don't align, game over -- if not now, then sometime later. If they do align, and align naturally, the followers will trust, respect and follow more easily, even when not inclined to agree.

Yash Gupta is dean of the Johns Hopkins Carey Business School.

A White House state dinner conveys enormous symbolism. Who is invited? Who isn't invited? Who is sitting near the president? All these things are noticed, and they often have an impact that goes beyond bruising the feelings of those who didn't receive an invitation, or who were invited but got seated at the back of the room.

These events have strategic importance as well. President Obama is trying to pass major legislation. An invitation to his administration's first state dinner could go a long way toward softening the stance of a die-hard opponent or two in Congress. This is a different kind of bully pulpit at the president's disposal -- one that comes with a lot more flash and glamour than, say, the podium in the press room.

The same kind of chess game takes place in regard to foreign dignitaries. You can be sure that the foreign leaders of the nations most important to the United States will not go without attention from the president. By the same token, major financial donors won't be left out in the cold.

A historical example of the power of symbolic events is the visit of Britain's King George VI to the United States in 1939. No reigning British monarch had ever set foot on American soil, not even in colonial times. With Europe on the brink of war, President Franklin D. Roosevelt realized the necessity of fostering closer ties between the two democracies, and he pursued this change in foreign policy at the risk of losing domestic support from the very strong isolationist and anti-British segments of the electorate.

FDR planned every detail of the visit to ensure the king's success in winning over the sympathy and support of the American people. The pomp and circumstance was important. And FDR's efforts paid off: King George VI's visit became a key component in developing a stronger political and social alliance between the United States and Britain, and eventually America's entry into World War II.

A former state legislator and gubernatorial aide, Ed O'Malley is president of the Kansas Leadership Center, a training center charged with fostering large-scale civic leadership for healthier communities. He tweets at http://www.twitter.com/eomalley.

Leadership is dependent on relationships, and while the symbolism and cost of state dinners can get out of hand, the power of the state dinner is the opportunity to build relationships with domestic and international colleagues.

I recently had a conversation with a former prominent state senator from Kansas, who was known for his incredible knowledge of the state budget and other complicated policy issues. When asked about the key to success in politics, his reply was simple: "It's all about the relationships." He admitted that he probably spent too much time studying the policy issues and not enough time engaging with colleagues. Being a policy wiz helps little if you don't have relationships with key people.

How is this relevant to your leadership?

We can't all host or attend state dinners, but that shouldn't stop us from engaging in a relationship-building strategy to enhance our leadership. Develop your own version of a state dinner. For me, it's breakfast at Jeanne's Cafe in the College Hill district of Wichita. I am there often, eating with new and old colleagues. I invite them there, not because it is the most convenient way to do work (there is no place for a PowerPoint projector!), but because breaking bread together, from the beginning of time, strengthens relationships.


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