One major lesson from the fall of Tony Hayward as BP's CEO: Executives must attend to the symbolic aspects of leadership very carefully, particularly when the public spotlight shines upon them. Clearly, Hayward stood on rocky ground on substantive matters related to the accident's causes and the deficiencies of the safety culture at BP. However, he made things far worse through his inability to manage symbolic dimensions of the crisis. His attendance at a yacht race off the English coast in June, for instance, sparked outrage from politicians and the general public. Failing to see the damaging symbolism of such an activity at that time constituted a major leadership failure.
Of course, this yacht race represents an extreme example. However, leaders often fail to attend sufficiently to symbolic matters. They either make mistakes in that regard, or they fail to take the opportunity to use symbolism to their advantage. Small gestures can have a big impact, both positively and negatively. As Alfred North Whitehead once said, "Symbolism is no mere idle fancy or corrupt egerneration: it is inherent in the very texture of human life."