Why would someone shave off a perfectly beautiful head of hair?

If you read this blog, I’m guessing you want to make a difference – in your company, in your team, for your customers, or in your community.  You probably believe what I do: that making a difference comes (at least partly) from doing the everyday things that build credibility and influence so that you can actually move people to action. Our culture has little love for grinding, but every influential person does their share.

But every so often, an opportunity comes along for a symbolic act.  You have a chance to do something that, while maybe small and even puzzling, can galvanize people to take action.

This is precisely what happened with my friend Anji.  Moved by the historic famine going on in eastern Africa, she decided to shave her head today in a symbolic act of sacrifice, solidarity, and – in the best sense of the word – attention-getting.  (Click here to read more about Anji’s act and how she is using her God-given mane to get our attention and provide relief for people in need. But beware – you’ll be challenged.)

So back to you. You have a vision for your organization, your team, or at least your role.  But you need to get people moving.  You need to provoke and inspire.  Is it time for a symbolic act?  Here are a few rules I nominate about symbolic acts:

  • Symbolic acts are usually accidents or acts of inspiration vs. calculation.  They come from the gut more than the head. They reflect our deepest convictions. Good luck finding that symbolic act in a spreadsheet. Anji got hers in the shower.
  • Though you might get your symbolic act in the shower, make sure it’s worth seeing the light of day. It has to be worth doing, not just attention-grabbing.
  • Symbolic acts can be awesome or awful.  Creating a locked-down, segregated executive suite in a company that needs collaboration is ugly.  A CEO writing personal, hand-written notes to mid-level or junior staff members rocks.
  • Symbolic acts may start out very small and inconsequential.  But for anyone who witnesses them, they’re memorable. They’re like location jokes – you have to be there to really get them. But you’ll probably tell a lot of people later.
  • Symbolic acts usually work best when they’re about something bigger than ourselves. We all have noses for self-serving symbolic acts.  The ones that get talked about and create a tailwind have no whiff of self.

You may think you’re not a CEO so your platform is too small.  Tell that to your team, your customer, your supplier, or your janitor. They’ll beg to differ.