Symbols: a Tool for Leaders

Symbols are a very useful tool for seeing reality - and also for shaping it.

By Chally Kacelnik

Image isn’t everything – but what you see can tell you a lot about an organisation.

At LKS Quaero, we talk about symbols as the currency of leadership. Symbols are non-verbal messages that are the outward manifestations of process. That sounds complex, but it’s really simple; some examples of symbols are flags, gestures, uniforms, medals, and rituals. Symbols can be used to reinforce or change an organisational culture (or any culture).

Imagine that you are in an organisation in which there is a really persistent narrative about that organisation. Let’s say it’s that “we have a great safety culture”. People within the organisation say this a lot – maybe even using that exact phrasing over and over. The idea and the message become very powerful as a narrative.

What happens if you see symbols that disrupt that narrative? Perhaps people are sloppy about PPE, there’s missing or poor signage, and loose equipment is stacked at heights. The symbols tell you a different story about the culture, a story in which safety is not at the core of the organisation’s values in practice.

So what happens if you announce that you are going to change those symbols? You produce some serious dissonance in the organisation, dissonance that will need to be resolved in order to enter into a genuine safety culture.

Symbols are a very useful tool for seeing reality – and also for shaping it. It has to be done carefully in order to send the right message, so it’s vital that you have a deep and realistic understanding of how the organisation is currently operating and what people are saying within it. We really enjoy helping organisations get to grips with how to do this well.

What people see isn’t just fluff, and it’s no less important than what people say.

At LKS Quaero, we help organisations to build and sustain positive cultures. For more information, visit us at or follow us on LinkedIn and Facebook.