Symbolism Archive

Zombies To The Rescue

By Mike Lehr
Complacency is the zombified life.

Zombies are emotions of complacency incarnated in our entertainment.

Entertainment often reflects our lives. Sometimes depicting it directly but other times serving to assuage emotions that don’t have an outlet. Just as we go to the gym to “blow off steam” and vent to others, entertainment can do the same as cinematic venting.

As early as the Romans, when they conquered the known Western world, the martial spirit of its people needed an outlet. Thus, gladiatorial games gained prominence. During the Great Depression, movies such as Shirley Temple’s expressed our dreams for a turnaround by depicting better lives especially for children. After the intensity of the sixties, our music and television shows depicted a lighter side for which we yearned.

Today, in our work, companies are keener to finding talent that fits rather than the best talent. The plethora of personality tests are a testament to this. Centralized heads know what needs to be done; they just need people who can do what they’re told and execute without distracting complaints. It’s a paradox of business that it strives for predictability while most employees yearn for variability in their work.

With computers, the ultimate processing tool, processes, procedures and rules dominate. If someone isn’t telling us what to do, some robot, computer, software, workflow or smartphone alarm is. Our lives are scheduled, morning until night, especially if we have children. We’re running through processes thoughtlessly. We do as told and keep heads down. Such compliance is the antithesis of the human spirit. It’s living dead, living the zombified life.

Zombies bring forth unconscious negative emotions accumulated from daily compliance and predictability, a form of hell. Entertaining ourselves with their killing, zombies take away our emotional garbage so we can return to effectiveness.

Without them, we and business would suffer.


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Leadership, The Secret

By Mike Lehr

This entry is part 1 of 12 in the series Leadership - The Secret

3 Gold StarsLeadership is an affect, thus leadership’s secret is about what goes on in the hearts and minds of the group’s members. It’s not about the leaders; it’s about members’ perceptions of leaders. In short, at the basest level, leaders are often actors, personified symbols of the group. When leadership models spend more time on what leadership is, on what leaders are, and on what they should do, they are not tapping the power of this secret.

That is because digging deeper we find leadership is subjective. People will see what they want to see in their leaders. If they like their leaders, they will see good. If they don’t, they won’t. Some neither want nor need leaders, neither leader nor follower they’re a third type. Others can’t live without leaders. We also find that leadership isn’t about what leaders are but about the relationship members feel they have with leaders. Finally, it’s not about what leaders do but about how events shape their actions, making them actors on a stage of constraints. Events can even instill upon leaders qualities they don’t have. Cultures influence those events more than leaders do.

For example, a cooperative leader will have difficulty leading a self-interested culture and vice versa. Cultures will tend to breed the leaders they want, cooperative ones breeding cooperative leaders, self-interested breeding self-interested one.

While seemingly leaving leaders without influence, it’s no less than commanders have in battle, considering constraints such as terrain, morale, technology and weather. Therefore, leaders need more individual and organizational psychology helping them to adapt to members’ expectations and helping them to seize powerful, symbolic moments for change. The secret is that leadership is often more about acting than being. But, this shouldn’t minimize leaders. After all, every play, every story requires a star.


This video by Mike Lehr, Making the Impossible Possible, illustrates the subjective nature of leadership

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This entry is part 2 of 4 in the series Pricing, The Secret

Secret to PricingTapping pricing’s secret is a battle over establishing the anchor in the consumer’s mind. Unless we are the ones who set the anchor, it’s generally better to establish a different one by elevating the differences in our products and services. We begin by creating a story about them followed by an emotive connector tying it to the consumer, usually a graphic, a symbol.

Since pricing is arbitrary, we have many stories from which to choose. Unfortunately, rather than a blessing, too many hinder decision making. Begin somewhere and move onward, similar to the way Picasso changed his paintings while painting them. The Yahoo! story exemplifies the crude origination, the rise and decline of a story and its emotive connector (Yahoo!), the malleability of it all.

Nevertheless, we generally underestimate symbols’ power as emotive connectors to our stories. “When in Chinatown, You Really Do Think More Chinese” (Harvard Business Review, March 2013 edition), tells of research indicating even a casual glance at the yin/yang symbol will encourage a more Eastern perspective. The backlash to Starbucks new logo and the use of labels are other examples of symbols’ power.

Our stories and symbols can trigger many emotions in consumers, but we can generalize them as follows:

  • Long-term security: strength, power (i.e. banking, energy, security)
  • Novelty of experience: freshness, youth, growth (i.e. cosmetic, fitness, travel)
  • Emotional recognition: uniqueness, mastery, status (i.e. luxury, sports, customizing)

Generalizing them as such helps us refine the keywords and phrases which begin to make up the usual host of supporting marketing elements. These are the working elements that cement our story – via a symbol – to our consumers’ emotions.

In the end, consumers buy the emotions our stories create. The products and services we offer are the manifestations of those emotions upon which we price.


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Individuals as Heroes“If you’re not a leader, you’re a follower.” You’ve heard this how many times? Yet, there is a third: people who don’t want to be either. I call them individuals.

Individuals don’t want to follow anybody and don’t want anybody following them. They just want to do what they believe they were born to do. However, individuals often create tensions in a group. We can see this more easily if we invert the introductory quote to say, “If you’re not a follower, then you’re a leader.”

I often use Dirty Harry as an allegoric example since he creates tension for leaders and followers. First, his talent makes him indispensable to leaders; however, his solitary approach shrugs followers. Second, this means leaders feel more dependent upon him than they would like to feel, and followers feel rejected by him.

As a result, since individuals aren’t followers, leaders’ will likely feel they are trying to be leaders, thus, threatening or disrespecting their leadership. Consequently, frequently the ones who say, “If you’re not a leader, you’re a follower,” are leaders subtly reinforcing their positions in the minds of the rest. Moreover, followers will likely make the same mistake, assuming individuals are trying to establish their own powerbase since they are not following the organizational leadership. Whether individuals like it or not, they might have become de facto leaders.

This concept of individuals living outside the leader-follower duality somewhat relates to the heroic archetype. For instance, Batman, Spiderman, Superman plus many other superheroes are solitary figures. The most symbolic of this solitariness is the Lone Ranger. Superheorines exist too.

So, it’s narrow-minded to see people only as leaders or followers. There is a third group, individuals, who just want to do what they were born to do. What were you born to do?


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This entry is part 3 of 7 in the series Beauty as Power

My Beauty as Power posts have generated emails regarding teaching what beauty is. Unfortunately, even though beauty is extremely subjective, we’re often taught it in a “one size fits all” perspective. Consequently, we often confuse beauty with popularity. Tossing that aside for the moment, it’s difficult to learn about beauty without learning appreciation.

For example, most people find maggots extremely ugly and gross. However, Maggot Therapy involves injecting maggots into body parts to remove gangrene so they can heal. By doing so, patients avoid amputation. This happens because maggots only eat dead organic material and are extremely thorough about it. Now, to people on the verge of losing limbs to gangrene, they learn to appreciate the beauty of maggots’ work very quickly.

Something similar happens to men when women nurse them back to health. Many movies play upon this theme such as Witness and Hang ‘Em High.  In medical facilities, it’s not unusual to have seriously injured male patients become attached to their nurses. They learn to appreciate the dedication and healing power of women whom they would not have considered otherwise.

As a more humorous example, there is Tom Sawyer’s fence painting. Tom’s given the undesirable task of painting a fence; however, by exhorting the virtues of fence painting to his friends, his friends come to appreciate the “privilege” of doing it for him by paying him.

As other examples, antiques, family heirlooms and memorabilia become more beautiful to us when we appreciate the story, memories and people behind them. Thus, appreciation is a process by which we learn to value something. Since we value beauty, it’s hard to learn about beauty without learning how to appreciate things . . . and people. Teach people appreciation, and you will teach them beauty.


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Designer labels encourage us not only to believe that the wearer has status but also trustworthiness, talent and many other positive attributes. In fact, the label is more important than the clothes themselves.

In the article, “I’ve Got You Labelled”, appearing in the April 2, 2011 edition of The Economist, Rob Nelissen and Marijn Meijers of Tilburg University in the Netherlands reached this conclusion from their research. While initially far-fetched, we find that a piece of art can fluctuate enormously in value depending upon whom people think painted it even though the art itself does not change. It’s also why people persistently knowingly buy knockoffs; they want the label.

One of the needs labels address is security. As we saw in my posts, Is Freedom for Everybody? and People Follow Leaders Not Facts, not all people are comfortable making their own decisions; they want others to make them for them. Status labels do exactly that; they help people determine what is good. The attributes of what makes clothing good such as the material, stitching, design, fabric, dyes, thread, etc., can make a qualitative determination daunting.

What is fascinating from Nelissen and Meijers research, is that this qualitative stamp not only influences our perceptions of the clothes but also the wearer. The qualitative effect is transferable, and it occurs on a subconscious level.

From an intuitive perspective, this means we can upgrade ourselves simply by wearing the right labels. This is what politicians do when they try to tie themselves closely to their country’s flag. This is what manufacturers do when they invest huge amounts in the packaging of their products. Presentation strongly influences our evaluation of content; plating affects our food’s taste. Thus, this principle holds true for the presentation of our ideas.

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Many leadership models give the leader almost divine characteristics or minimally the best humanity can offer within a business context. These models often position the leader as the vanguard of change, the influencer who can move an enterprise from its current state to its future one.

Tunisia’s first lesson is just how conditional leadership really is. Rather than a visionary triggering and influencing events, the leader is often just trying to avoid being overrun. Tunisia’s uprising was not “ordered” by any leader. Tunisia’s second lesson is emotion’s power in galvanizing collective action around a particular point. Demanding free elections is that point in Tunisia. Finally, the third lesson is how small, simple, singular events can trigger these emotions. In Tunisia, the trigger was a college-educated street vendor who set himself on fire.

What do these lessons mean for business leaders?

First, a leader who fits one particular set of circumstances might not fit another. A large, mature enterprise defending its turf from competitors is going to require a different leader than a small, virgin one trying to tap an undeveloped market. Second, emotions are more powerful at galvanizing employees than any reasoned list of benefits. That means connecting initiatives to the particular emotions dominating the workforce such as greatness, safety, happiness and competitiveness. Third, the trigger doesn’t have to be grandiose. Small events that symbolize something greater about the enterprise can do it. This means small, almost invisible success stories can create a powerful narrative about the enterprise and its mission.

Overall, Tunisia reminds us that the number one resistor to change is often the leader of the enterprise. New conditions might necessitate a new leader.

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