Meghan Markle might never become Queen of England, but she rules the world through the power of the symbols she chose for her wedding.
Literally, every minute act and every tangible article in any royal wedding is imbued with symbolic meaning whether intended or not. But there is no question that this bride and groom thought through each nuance in exquisite awareness that the unique characteristics of their marriage ceremony gave them a historic opportunity to make symbolic statements about gender, race, and justice, thereby changing how people globally would feel and think about these pivotal issues.
Let’s start with the most enduring and in my opinion most important symbol: the titles they chose to denote their status hereafter: Duke and Duchess of Sussex. By taking their titles from an antislavery predecessor, Meghan and Harry staked out an ethic of social justice as their abiding value. That symbolic value guided the rest of their wedding choices, from music to their mothers’ roles: Harry by leaving space literally for his late mom Princess Diana and Meghan by having her African American mother in taking space visibly if not centrally in the church.
More importantly, by the use of these symbols in ways that the most effective leaders do, they signaled how they intend to live and lead.
And while it was obvious that this couple approaches their lives together through an egalitarian lens, any leader can learn important lessons by observing their wedding. Meghan Markle’s intentional use of symbols to communicate a new dispensation and bring a traditionally hidebound culture along with her is especially instructive.
Here are four ways leaders can, or rather should, use symbols:
1.To create a framework of shared meaning that enables people to coalesce around an idea or action.
The late Warren Bennis, himself an iconic symbol of leadership experts, often said that the first responsibility of the leader is the creation of meaning. Hearing him say this when I was early in my CEO career was probably the most useful piece of advice I ever received.
Simply being in a leadership role sends symbolic messages in and of itself. People change how they look at you. Every word, every act is imbued with meaning. If you are not aware and intentional about the symbolic meaning you want to communicate, you will be defined by other people’s fantasies about you. In the absence of deliberate information, people fill in the blanks. Certainly, that was obvious in the media’s incessant parsing of every observable element of the wedding.
Brands, avatars, and team mascots are the most obvious symbols leaders use to keep people feeling connected and aligned. While Arizona State University’s Sun Devil mascot has always been prominently featured at sports events, I have noticed that recently everyone employed by the school features “Go Devils” in their email signoffs, presumably a deliberate strategy by leadership to create visible symbolic cohesion.
And humans love symbol-rich stories like Star Wars; their characters soon become memes and metaphors that in turn become organizing principles for ideas.
2.To enable people to grasp a new idea or adopt a possibly controversial course of action.
That Markle wore a veil at all, not to mention the white dress and tiara, was a symbol in itself that she would respect tradition in a culture that values its history and has a strong sense of propriety. But it was the obvious and subtle departures from tradition that most defined the meaning of this royal wedding and demonstrated how an entire culture can be led toward change in a non-disruptive way. Or at least it is possible to disrupt without distressing people by connecting the old symbols with the new ones you want to prevail.
Markle’s very being as a biracial woman signals a dramatic shift in the notions of who owns power and privilege in Western society that has been held in white male hegemony for so long.
Seeing a biracial woman in the role of British royalty, the ultimate symbol of white privilege makes all of us who have been outsiders to the predominant culture smile. But for Black girls and women, it’s a total game changer in how they can see themselves in the story of social acceptance and leadership opportunities.
Jamia Wilson, Executive Director of The Feminist Press
Successful rebranding efforts use this principle too. While Ford plans to discontinue all passenger cars, it is keeping the Mustang because it says, “Mustang means freedom.”
3. To call people to higher (or lower) values.
Once I was engaged in a heated conversation about what course of action a coalition group of peers should take in a challenging situation. There were multiple opinions and since no one was in charge of anyone else, there was no leader with the legitimate authority to call the discussion quits and choose a direction. Then one woman pulled out a bag of marbles and asked each one of us to take one. “This is your touchstone,” she said, referring to our shared mission. Such a simple action enabled the group to test courses of action back to the values we felt most passionate about and to let go of ego and individual agendas. The group quickly came to a decision and the conversation could proceed to the assignment of responsibilities for getting to the ultimate goal we all wanted to accomplish.
Religious symbols carry immense power to call people to their higher selves, and quasi-religious symbols such as Ku Klux Klan hoods can equally call people to their most base values and intentions. The results are all in the intention of the leader.
Markle and her prince articulated so many positive values around justice: having Bishop Michael Curry deliver his sermon about love in Black church tones rather than the British accent usually heard in St. George’s Chapel, and the Kingdom Choir singing “Stand By Me”–can’t get more symbolic than that — it was my favorite part.
4. To shape cultures.
Markle saying she is proud to be a woman and a feminist and all of us who have been fighting the good battles for gender equality weep with relief while closet sympathizers suddenly feel safe to express their true thoughts. Next, if one is cynical, we will surely see more soaps and cosmetics take on girl power themes because feminism sells now.
The British Commonwealth countries plus California were woven into Markle’s stunning veil, so long and diaphanous it reminded me of a Disney Cinderella in which the bluebirds (symbolic of happiness) gently picked up the ends of her train. It’s been pointed out that the veil’s reflection of all the Commonwealth countries is fraught with negatives as well as beauty: she was trailed by the whole mess of colonialism and all the suffering it carried.
But cultures are complex and each symbol tells a story or part of one. Humans learn through stories, and these narratives help us make sense of the world. For a leader, symbols are shorthand messages that allow followers to see themselves in the stories she tells about her vision, the new initiative he wants their support for, or simply to enable people to collaborate on their work despite different interests and opinions about the best way to reach a goal.
The bottom line is that a leader starts with the power of position. But what you do with that positional power is up to you and how you create meaning for others through the use of symbols.
Meghan’s diaphanous veil holds all of these symbolic complexities and leadership principles within it. I can’t wait to see what she does next with them.