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The Courageous Leader in a Postmodern Organizational Context

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Approach Two: Symbol-Based Planning

This second approach is probably the second most commonly found. In some ways, like the first approach, this second approach actually involves no formal planning at all. The focus is on the domain of intentions—identifying or promoting a specific vision (or mission, purpose or values) for her organization. Once again, it is typically the “boss” who starts the planning process—in this case by promoting a specific “dream” or compelling image of what the organization could be if it successfully launches a new product or service. As in the case of the command-based approach, the rest of this leader’s staff scramble, in this instance, to generate an idea that hopefully will enable the organization to achieve her vision, and find information (often from the marketplace) that does two things: (1) demonstrates that this vision is “realistic” and “achievable” and (2) provides the idea-people with guidelines and boundaries for creating their successful strategy. The organization then moves to action inspired by and motivated by the compelling image offered by the symbolic leader.

The symbolic approach to planning can be very effective if used in very large organizations where the upper-tier of leaders primarily are in the business of inspiring rather than getting involved in the day-to-day operations of the organization. The symbolic approach also makes sense in a setting where the market place is relatively stable, but in which there must be a sustained effort for products or services to be viable. In other words, the symbolic approach makes sense when it comes to organizations that are in the business of product or service quality and must be constantly concerned with reputation and prestige. Collegiate institutions often belong in this category, as do organizations that produce high end products (such as Swiss watches or yachts) or provide high-end services (such as expensive resorts or restaurants offer).

One of the strengths associated with the symbolic approach to strategic planning is that it tends to encourage patience and persistence—an ongoing pursuit of some lofty and highly desirable outcome. Symbols inspire for the “long haul” and “keep us going when the going gets tough.” This second approach to strategic planning offers a clear distinction between strategic and tactical planning. The symbolic-based planner offers the big vision and the long-term strategy. She leaves the tactical implementation of the vision and strategy to the mid-managers and other lower-level employees in the organization. While the symbolic leader may find ways to “touch the masses” and may make a symbolic show of support for the operational managers of the organization (photographed climbing a telephone poll or serving a meal in a fast-food restaurant), this person (like the command-based leader) is often out of touch with the realities of the workplace. She fails to attend sufficiently to the domain of information—particularly information about the internal operations of the organization.

As in the case of the command approach, symbolic planning can often be risky—the dreams are often not very realistic  However, the symbolic planner and leader can be very appreciative and can provide support for a “success-oriented” approach to program development: “we have taken on a very ambitious goal and will undoubtedly make some mistakes on the way to this goal; hopefully we can learn from these mistakes; however, what is most important is that we get up, dust ourselves off, and try again to achieve a major, worthy success.”

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