The front of Beaver Stadium in Pennsylvania has a bare spot.
The spot was formerly the home of the Joe Paterno statue. The bronze image of a man who had coached a football program into a national powerhouse. The flattened, metal silhouettes of football players attached to the wall behind the statue removed as well.
The statue told a story of a man who led young men. It represented a piece of history for those who bled the blue-and-white of Penn State allegiance.
Yet as a different story came to light – a tale of corrupted power, cover-up, and unchallenged abuse – the statue came to mean something different as well.
Some might say, “it’s just a statue…it’s just a 900 pound piece of metal formed into the shape of a man.”
But we all know it’s more than metal – it’s a symbol. Symbols carry meaning. They carry the meaning we give them.
Our lives are full of symbols. Our clothes and cars can be symbols of status. We carry symbols on our wrists, our fingers, our tattoos, and around our necks. We fill our homes and workplaces with symbols.
A symbol is only meaningful when we ascribe meaning to it. A symbol tells a story.
In the case of the Joe Paterno statue, the story changed. Thus the meaning changed. For many, the symbol could no longer inspire, it could only insinuate.
The statue didn’t change. The story behind it changed. And symbols get their power from the stories behind it – they get their meaning from the meaning we give them.
Symbols have the power to unite people and divide people. All you have to do is wave a flag and you see the power of a symbol at work.
Have you ever been to a concert where you were incredibly moved by the talent, the beauty, the entire experience? You can’t explain all of the emotions you felt, the joy that flowed through you as the music played. At the end of the night, you return to your home and all you have to show for your experience is a ticket stub.
But you keep that piece of paper. You mount it to a wall or enshrine it in a scrapbook. It is just a ticket stub. But it’s so much more.
This piece of paper has become a symbol of an experience. It is a reminder of what took place. It is a memory you don’t want to forget. It is a symbol that points to something deeper and more meaningful. Something you may not have the words to describe.
If you lead or work with a group of people, it’s a good idea to identify, create, and rally around certain symbols that will unite you as a group. A uniform can be a symbol. A word or phrase on a wall can be a symbol. A statue can be a symbol.
The symbols you use can energize a group and connect them to something greater than themselves.
But it is equally important to recognize when the symbols we use have the potential to divide us. When the meaning behind the symbols elicit negative feelings like fear or oppression. There may come a point where the group wants to tell a different story…which will require different symbols.
What are the symbols in your life?
Where do they get their meaning?
Is there a new symbol that needs to be created to move your team forward?