Symbolically Yours…..

Jesus Washing the Feet of the Apostles at the Last SupperPainting: Ford Maddox Brown

Jesus Washing the Feet of the Disciples at the Last Supper
Painting: Ford Maddox Brown

Leadership using symbolic action is a common occurrence, with at least three having made the news recently. The first concerns the siting of the new NHS Commissioning Board HQ in Leeds i.e. away from London. Apparently a key purpose is to symbolise a break from political control. The new organisation, it is hoped, will create “the culture, style and leadership”[1] required to bring better patient care, but more importantly, be free from interference by politicians. Putting several hundred miles between the Commissioning HQ and Westminster will, in reality, not stop Ministers interfering if they wish to do so, but as a way of signalling intent, it is a grand gesture.

The second is the very public action by Pope Francis on his first Holy Thursday. When ‘washing the feet of the faithful’, he included two women prisoners, one of whom was a Muslim. The move had reverberations throughout the more traditional arms of the Church, but was a powerfully symbolic act. Pope Francis’s purpose seems to be to refocus the Church away from “soul-searching or constant introspection” as a way to “encounter the Lord”, to actively helping the least fortunate, the “lost sheep” of society,[2] and including women prisoners in a traditionally male cast has drawn much attention.

The third was the acknowledgement by Boris Johnson following an exposing interview on the Andrew Marr Show. “Eddie Mair”, he said, had done “a splendid job. There is no doubt that is what the BBC is for – holding us to account.”[3] At face value, this is self-effacing support for the BBC as an instrument of democracy. For the more cynical, the suspicion will be that his aim was to demonstrate better character than the interview had suggested.

It is not for me to judge the appropriateness of any of these acts; that is an aspect of individual choice based on one’s own values and beliefs. What is important is that any symbolic act reflects something important for the organisation. Each case above was born of something significant for the creators; whether or not you agree with the sentiments behind them. To make them as positive as possible, however, we can’t go far wrong if we make sure our motives are worthy.

[1] NHS Commissioning Board, ‘People Transition Policy’, Gateway ref: 16381

[2] The Telegraph on-line, Wednesday 3rd April 2013

[3] News Shopper.co.uk, Wednesday 3rd April 2013

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