The Symbolism of First Impressions


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When Jorge Cardinal Bergoglio was recently elevated to Pope, his every action, statement and physical choice was imbued with profound meaning. He chose the name of Francis after St. Francis of Assisi, the gentle and giving founder of the order of which Pope Francis is a member. He declared that there shall be no “the first” after his name—just Francis. He shared a minibus with the cardinals rather than take his own limousine, and he got off his throne and walked to greet each cardinal (I’m not above you). He waded into a crowd to physically touch as many lay people as possible. He wore a simple wooden cross and no stole. And finally, he asked for the people to bless him and asked God to forgive the cardinals for what they had done (showing his humor).

On one hand these actions do not represent any earth-shaking event, but because of them he has been crowned the modest pope who is of the people and for the poor. He has hardly uttered more than a couple of hundred public words and yet, for this, he is already adored. And no matter what else he does in his papacy, this will, in part, be how he is remembered.

Wow!

Now that is a tremendous amount of clear and powerful meaning to have been communicated in his first two days. He pointed to a church future by reminding followers of its humble past.

While managers and leaders will never get that kind of grand stage, I still believe that they should look carefully at what the Pope has done and how he did it.

First Impressions

When we talk about first impressions, the usual aphorism is that we only get one opportunity to make one. Implied in this is that we should not screw it up—it is a defensive recommendation. Now Pope Francis, for all his assumed modesty, went on the offensive. Whether he did it purposefully, or as a function of who he is, he illustrated his vision with consistent and overlapping images and symbols. Most importantly, people extracted meaning from those activities and objects. And this is important because people trust extracted meaning more than words (e.g., if a company says it values its employees while conducting a significant downsizing, which meaning is believed?).

But most of us, as leaders, do not plan our symbols and impressions; we do not consciously try to communicate what is meaningful about us. We just try to look nice and not sound foolish. But regardless, if we are trying to communicate meaning with our actions and objects, people are interpreting and extracting meaning all the time.

Planned Meaning

Admittedly, it would be very difficult to spend your working life trying to plan your symbolic behavior and its possible meanings. This is just unrealistic. But you can put some thought into public events and how we are perceived. And here are some simple thoughts:

• If you want the people in your new unit to understand that you are all about performance: hold formal presentation meetings where you sit at the head of the conference table. They will extract the no nonsense meaning you are seeking.

• If you want your group to feel they are individually valued: have coffee in neutral settings with individuals or small groups of people, where they are in the place of honor. Whether you remember what they say or not, they will believe that they are important to you.

• If you want them to cut costs: publicize efficiency gains and error reductions.

• If you want them to be creative: reward and lionize the risk takers.

• If you want them to build on the company’s past: retell stories about what created that success; if you want them go in another direction: tell stories about what other companies have done.

• Be aware of what you drive and how you dress—they will take meaning from all of it. A Mercedes says something very different about your core meaning than a Ford Taurus. “When you Ford, the world Fords with you, when you Rolls, you Rolls alone.” They won’t miss the message.

While Freud reputedly said that “sometimes a cigar is just a cigar,” personally, I doubt it. So take a page from the font of symbols—religion; and plan a few symbolic activities. It will most likely communicate more than your words ever will.

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