Omnipotent leadership versus symbolic leadership

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Leadership approach is one of the most crucial aspects of organizations. The success of organizations is dependent largely on the type of leadership it has. Finkelstein, Hambrick & Cannella (2009) defines leadership as a type of authority due to the powers accorded to leaders in relation to their followers or subordinates. The literature on leadership is very diverse and in-depth. A lot of literature have analyzed the leadership perspectives in various organizations and scenarios. There is a general agreement in the literature that depending on the type of leadership qualities and styles adopted by the top management of any organization, the performance outcomes are judged in a predictable manner. Different leaders adopt different styles in managing their subordinates.

Efficient leadership, like Finkelstein, Hambrick & Cannella (2009) observes, is one which emphasizes on teamwork, ethics, and professionalism. In this paper, two key leadership types have been analyzed: Omnipotent and symbolic leaderships. Consequently, two case studies have been used as key references: the leadership styles of General Savage and Colonel Davenport in the movie Twelve O’clock High and General Honore and Mr. Brown in Hurricane Katrina. The paper draws from a wide array of literature to support the analysis. The two leadership perspectives are compared based on their conventional attributes as demonstrated in the cases and the literature.

Whichever type of leadership adopted in any organization, how leadership responsibilities are conducted is essential in influencing the outcomes. The two case scenarios describe two different types of leadership and managerial perspectives. General Savage and Colonel Davenport are leaders whose hands and minds are always on the task and looks forward to ensuring that every member of their units does what he commands to be done (King, 1949). Savage believes that the failures and successes of the force depend entirely on his leadership approach and coordination tactics. For these reasons, he is often tough on his subordinates, making sure that all orders are executed in the right way, and to the standards, he has designed.

According to Vickrey (1995), this approach to leadership is effective since it ensures that all activities are carried out perfectly as they need to be performed. A leader who is always present to ensure that all things are done as required also commands the workforce effectively to ensure that everyone’s participation yields positive outcomes to the organization (Finkelstein, Hambrick & Cannella, 2009). General Savage and Davenport’s leadership styles fit perfectly in description. For instance, Savage fires or demotes any officer who does not perform to his expectations or commits a mistake contrary to the military codes. As a result, everyone is kept to their toes, always committed to doing only what is right, and profitable to the organization. This perspective to leadership can be attributed to omnipotent leadership approach. General Savage’s leadership approach is similar to that of Colonel Davenport who also feels responsible for every activity undertaken at the unit he is heading. He harasses his men while on a mission, hoping to instill discipline in them. Davenport believes that with disciplined men, he can pass all instructions to all without complaints and difficulty. He chooses to dominate and centralize leadership instead of allowing all to participate freely.

Omnipotent and symbolic leadership styles are two leadership styles which seem to contrast one another sharply owing to the manner in which leadership responsibilities are carried out in each. Consequently, the outcomes of every organizations’ operations are influenced greatly by the leadership efforts invested. Although many successful organizations are those whose leadership is directly responsible for the activities and operations being carried out, i.e. the leader is at the center of every operation, concerns are raised regarding their effectiveness in the long-term (Finkelstein, Hambrick & Cannella, 2009). The omnipotent perspective of leadership accords the leader unlimited control over the organization and its entire purpose. In this regime, the leader is at the center of all undertaking (functions, purpose, and operations) at the company. As a result, it is only the leadership (managers) who are responsible for the successes and failures of the organization. Finkelstein, Hambrick & Cannella (2009) refer to this type of management as an ‘absolute’ management system.

Although omnipotent leadership yields positive outcomes since the leader’s presence compel everyone to work hard and accomplish all tasks accurately and beneficially, this style of leadership/ administration may pose serious setbacks which when not controlled or managed effectively, may result in serious backlash to the organization. For instance, since the leader is directly in charge of every activity undertaken in the organization, fear among the subordinates may make it impossible to contribute their valuable opinion to help steering the organization upfront (Lussier, 2015). Also, depending on the personality of the leader, this type of leadership can undermine participation willingly by employees, result in frustration due to compulsion, and retrogress support from junior leaders due to dominion. A case in point is when most of the pilots in General Savage’s troop tender their requests for transfer due to constant humiliation, frustration and lack of support. It based on these reasons that omnipotent leadership approaches are said to undermine growth by focusing solely on productivity and success (Lussier, 2015).

General Savage’s leadership perspective evident from the movie contrasted the leadership approach that General Honore and Mr. Brown employ to manage their subordinates. While Savage believes in doing and influencing all outcomes directly (omnipotent leadership), Honore and Brown gives everyone under his leadership a chance to express their concerns, expertise, and knowledge as long as they contribute sufficiently to the organization’s growth (Honore, 2009). His approach is more liberal and participatory. He doesn’t adopt the ‘I know it all’ perspective used by Savage. Brown and Honore’s leadership approach falls under the symbolic leadership perspective. Even though he is the leader, he does not influence every operations, outcomes or activity directly but instead, allows delegation of roles and responsibilities so that outcomes are influenced from other quarters other than centralized to the top leadership as Savage does.

Symbolic leadership view is contrasted with omnipotent leadership view depending on how the operations of the organization are run and managed. Here, the leader only serves a symbolic role other than taking an active position in influencing issues, purpose and operations of the organization directly. In this approach, the leader/ manager takes a passive role as opposed to an active role in management. As a result, the leader is not considered responsible directly to the successes or failures of the organization. Symbolic leaders have only limited impacts on certain substantive operations, purpose or outcomes of the organization while a huge chunk of the leadership decisions is influenced from outside (Vickrey, 1995).

According to Vickrey (1995), not even the leader may claim to know everything and can do everything right at all times. The adage ‘human is to err’ applies to all persons irrespective of their professional training or experience. However, everyone in the organization cannot be wrong at the same time. However, when not given the opportunity to express their opinions, the right opinions may be overlooked and undermined when they may be needed the most. It is for these reasons that Honore inculcates the feeling of independence, active participation, allows objection and rejection of ideas by other employees as a process of growth and enrichment.

Symbolic leadership not only make the leaders’ work easier in running the organizations but also ensures that things are done the right way by listening to the contrary opinions (Vickrey, 1995). The liberality of symbolic leadership approach is one of its major strengths to granting success for organizations. Lack of participatory leadership exhibited in Savage’s case (omnipotent leadership) tends to undermine the prospects of leadership by suppressing support and participation. This was the major undoing for Savage until he realized the need to incorporate contrary opinions by allowing Bishop to speak his mind his opinion is considered. Without liberalism offered by symbolic leadership, the tyrant efforts of omnipotent leaders are thwarted by opposition, negligence, lack of corporate and poor support. Broken down; therefore, such organizations are highly likely to fall as evident in Savage’s case.


Leadership is an essential bit of any organization. The type and mode of leadership style or approach adopted in any organization bear direct influence to its success. The success of any leadership approach depends largely on how activities, operations, and events are coordinated by the organization to bring about success. This study has made an illustrative comparison between two distinct types of leadership perspectives: Omnipotent and symbolic leadership approaches. Using the case studies: Hurricane Katrina and Twelve O’clock High movie, the differences between the two leadership approaches is evidently illustrated. Although omnipotent leadership approach is results oriented and makes every employee alert to meeting the targets, it discourages participation and thus diminishing output. On the other hand, symbolic leadership perspective encourages participation from all quarters thereby enriching the outcomes of every operation hence its strength over omnipotent approach.

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