Symbolic Leadership

Part of the Contributions to Management Science book series (MANAGEMENT SC.)


The theory of symbolic leadership goes back to ideas of numerous authors (e.g., Pondy 1978; Pfeffer 1981; Smircich and Morgan 1982). Presenting it as a cohesive leadership approach that incorporates various ideas and concepts of symbolic management and leadership and as clearly distinguishable from other theoretical leadership approaches has to be credited to the German leadership scholar Oswald Neuberger (1990, 1995, 2002). According to Neuberger (1995), the approach of symbolic leadership embeds the understanding of leadership reality in a more comprehensive theoretical frame. This frame is based on anthropology (e.g., Geertz 1973), research on corporate culture (e.g., Hofstede 1980; Schein 1985; Sackmann 1991; Martin 1992), and organizational symbolism (e.g., Pondy et al. 1983; Turner 1990; Alvesson and Berg 1992). Additionally, the sociological concepts of symbolic interactionism (e.g., Mead 1934; Blumer 1969) and the constructivist approach (e.g., Hosking et al., 1995) play an important role in this approach. Symbolic leadership is defined as leadership which refers to, and is based on, the category of meaning. Meaning becomes tangible and therefore can be experienced in the form of symbols (Neuberger 1995). The concept assumes that reality, created and lived by employees in companies, is a social construction, with leadership being a part of this reality (Bartölke 1987). The approach rejects the existence of a level of substantive actions and results, like noted in Pfeffer’s (1981a) writings about management as symbolic action. Instead, it is emphasized that the meaningful world of organizations is the outcome of numerous interaction processes creating the organizational reality. Hence, symbolic leadership concentrates on studying values, meaning, interpretation, history, context, as well as other symbolic elements in the leadership process (Kezar et al. 2006).


Social Reality Corporate Culture Leadership Process Symbolic Element Organizational Reality 


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© Springer-Verlag Berlin Heidelberg 2010

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Dept. Border Region StudiesUniversity of Southern DenmarkSønderborgDenmark

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