The symbolism of leadership is one of the most powerful elements of the job. But, somehow, we never seem to learn that every action taken by a CEO or other senior leader has what Don Hambrick (my former colleague at Columbia) used to call "symbolic fallout." The more senior you are, the more every move, action and decision is dissected for meaning, beyond the substance that the executive thought they were conveying.
The latest entry in the symbolic Chernobyl follies has got to be the decision by BP CEO Tony Hayward to attend a yachting event this past weekend. Coverage has been scathing, adding to mounting public fury over the ineffective response to the spill and in all likelihood making it far more difficult for Hayward to do his job. It is often this sort of symbolic mishap – remember AIG and the bonuses – that marks the beginning of the end for leaders.
It all supports what I often say in class – you don't have a choice not to be 'into' symbolism. It comes with the job. And symbolic fallout can sink a career just as readily as getting the substance of a decision wrong.