How Leaders Use Symbols to Influence Others

by Scott Jeffrey

With wings spanning over six feet long, the eagle soars over the trees. Its powerful, flapping wings sound like the mighty wind.

Its strong feet and curved talons comfortably grasp prey twice its size. Landing gracefully, it remains perched at the summit in all its majesty and glory.

The eagle—the king of birds—is a symbol of strength, vitality, power, and omniscience. And its greatness has inspired comparison to the sun, earthly rulers, and imperial nations.

leadership symbol

Photo by Patrick Brinksma on Unsplash

The eagle appears on the United States Presidential Seal as a symbol of power. This eagle holds an olive branch in one talon to symbolize peace and 13 arrows (for the original 13 colonies) in the other, representing the willingness to defend the country.

Many other nations use the eagle to project strength and power.

What Are Symbols?

Symbols predate language. They are encoded in our psyche as if they are hardwired into our brains when we enter this world.

A symbol is a visual image that represents an idea.

Water, for example, symbolizes the moon, the feminine life-force, and the unconscious. Fire symbolizes the sun and the masculine life-force that surrounds us.

Symbols and Their Meaning

Every image—everything you can see with your eyes and in your mind’s eye—has symbolic counterparts.

When you see a ladder, your conscious mind sees a tool for climbing to higher places. Symbolically, the image of a ladder serves as a reminder of a climb toward higher consciousness or a spiritual climb to a higher truth.

Most of us aren’t conscious of symbolic meaning. We see a ladder as a ladder. But that symbolic meaning lies deep in our minds, at the subconscious and unconscious levels.

The caduceus is the symbol of the medical profession. The center is the mythical wand of the Greek god Hermes who used it to bestow sleep. The twin snakes coiled around the wand symbolize healing and poison, health and illness.

The five Olympic rings symbolize the union in sports of Africa, America, Asia, Europe, and Oceania.The colors represent competing nations. (One color was on each nation’s flag when the rings were conceived in 1913.)

How Symbols Are Used in Business

Brand logos is not a new phenomenon. The Ancient Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, and Chinese all stamped their goods, like bricks, pottery, and bags of herbs, with symbols to indicate who made them.

But in the 19th Century, trademarks became more than marks of origin, they became badges and symbols, representing the personality of the business.

southwest symbol of leadership

Southwest Airlines flies its passengers with a big red heart at the belly of their planes. The heart is a symbol of the spiritual and emotional core of a human being, widely associated with love. (Not surprisingly, love is in Southwest’s ticker symbol: LUV.)

apple leadership symbol

Steve Job’s decision to use the apple for his company’s mark was deliberate. The apple is a symbol of knowledge, awakening, creativity, and beauty.

leadership symbol mercedes

The three-pointed star in the Mercedes-Benz logo reportedly came from inventor Gottlieb Daimler’s dream of building motor vehicles for land, air, and sea.

But the star itself is an ancient symbol. For thousands of years, stars have oriented humans wandering in the darkness. The star represents something inside of us that is visionary, starlike. It is a symbol of the Self—a higher part of us—of wisdom, guidance, and destiny. Mercedes owners are guided by this symbol whenever they get behind the wheel.

The Relationship Between Symbols, Archetypes, and Emotion

These symbolic images of our collective nature are found throughout the world, in our myths, dreams, and fantasies.

Polymath Adolf Bastian called them elementary ideas. Jung called them archetypes. For Jung, archetypes aren’t just elementary ideas; they also represent elementary feelings, fantasies, and visions.

Archetypes are simultaneously images and emotions. An image becomes dynamic when charged with emotion. Without emotion, the image cannot speak to us.

Symbolic images act as doorways to our inner world—the home of our fantasies, imagination, and emotions. Without emotions, life is, well, lifeless. Archetypes, Jung explains, “are the pieces of life itself—images that are integrally connected to the living individual by the bridge of the emotions.”

Images tap into the emotions of our inner worlds and give life a sense of meaning. Symbolic images are powerful because they provide this shortcut to meaning.

See also: The Ultimate Archetypes List (Over 325 of them)

How Symbols Influence Behavior

As I explain here, archetypes are set patterns of behavior. A common archetype is the Hero. The hero exhibits certain behaviors like valor, courage, selflessness, and being proactive. So if advertisers are successful at activating the hero archetype in you, they can effectively call you to take action.

It’s as if we have a library of programmed behaviors cataloged in our psyche. And how do we open these programs? Using symbols is one way.

Symbols are like keys that trigger archetypal patterns of behavior.

The Many Symbols of Leadership…

There are many different symbols of leadership. We must, of course, be careful with how we define “leadership.”

If we define leadership with power, then symbols like crowns, thrones, robes, imperial guards, suits, orbs, and scepters come to mind. These leadership symbols are designed to project power and embed the leader with larger-than-life qualities.

But the reality is that these images are more symbols of old-world power and status than new-world leadership. These leadership symbols represent hierarchies of dominance that our culture is trying to evolve beyond. And slowly, it’s making progress.

What are some of the emerging leadership symbols?

The emerging symbols of leadership include:

  • Chess: leadership as an expression of strategy.
  • Telescope: leadership as a means of building toward a vision.
  • The entrepreneur archetype: leadership as a process to start with an idea, build a team, and actualize a dream.
  • The lightbulb: leadership as an expression of creativity and the generation of new ideas.
  • The coach archetype: leadership as a pathway to developing individuals.
  • The heart symbol: the servant leader who acts with humility and grace.

There are many other symbols of leadership, but these powerful symbols have a wind at their back.

How Inspired Leaders Use Symbols to Move People

Ultimately, human beings—your team, your stakeholders, and your customers—are not moved, persuaded, or influenced by thoughts and words. We are moved by feelings, emotions, and images. We are moved by the symbols of leadership.

Inspired leaders communicate with passion, purpose, and vision. They use metaphors, analogies, illustrations, stories, and anecdotes to convey their ideas. Metaphors, in fact, are how archetypes first express themselves.

A metaphor, as you know, is a figure of speech that uses an object or idea to represent a specific meaning that is otherwise difficult to convey. A metaphor suggests a resemblance; it uses a symbol to transfer meaning from one idea to another.

A study on presidential leadership and charisma examined the use of metaphors in the first-term inaugural addresses of 36 presidents. Each president was independently rated on their level of charisma. The researchers found that charismatic presidents used nearly twice as many metaphors as non-charismatic presidents.

Metaphors intrigue cognitive scientists because they are so effective at changing the way people think and behave. Metaphors allow large amounts of information to be assimilated, retained, recalled and applied quickly.

Lincoln, Leadership and the Power of Symbols

Aristotle writes in Poetics,

“To be a master of metaphor is a sign of genius, since a good metaphor implies intuitive perception of the similarity in dissimilars.”

Abraham Lincoln used the persuasive power of metaphor and symbols liberally in his speeches. His Gettysburg Address is a 270-word testament to his mastery of metaphor.

For persuasive impact, Lincoln used metaphors of birth, death, and resurrection in his address.

It begins, “Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”

In this powerful opening sentence, Lincoln calls forth imagery of birth in four places. (I italicized them above.)

Harnessing the Power of Symbolic Imagery

The right symbolic image or metaphor can evoke a powerful sensory experience in your team members, igniting a desired change of behavior. They can help establish a thriving culture, infusing enthusiasm into your organization.

The right symbolic images can also become powerful attractors for your best customers.

Business leaders that harness the power of symbolic images can forge ahead with clarity, humility, creativity, and inspiration.

Recommended Reading

visionary leadership book recommendation

The Leadership Challenge (Sixth Edition) by James Kouzes and Barry Posner (audiobook)

Read Next

How to Discover Your Company’s Core Values and Start Building a Strong Culture

10 Attributes of Visionary Leadership for Change Agents and Outperforming Entrepreneurs

Using the Hero’s Journey as a Powerful Map for Your Development

Decoding Maslow’s Human Needs to Understand What Drives Your Behavior