Leadership & Visual Influence Processes

November 18, 2021

The word leadership automatically brings up the connotation, ‘influence’, almost equal to it. Indeed, a leader influences and there are several processes in such influence. Our institution, sometime in 2003, started a study on the lives of great leaders so as to understand, among many other aspects, the influence processes that work while leading. It took a decade for completing the project which threw up several discoveries. Several professors were involved in the project, ‘Fifty Great World Leaders of the Last Twenty-five Centuries’. Each professor took up the work of researching into a selected or opted leader’s achievements with regard to influence on people. A large number from among the fifty professors came out with various discoveries on leader effectiveness through influence processes.

Leader’s use of influence processes is manifold and they can be brought down to five. The most powerful influence process used by a large number of leaders, our own Mahatma is the best example, is ideological influences. Many leaders ardently believe in certain principles or even concepts and they adhere to them firmly. This, once known, influences the followers particularly because these principles or even concepts have a bearing on not only the life of a leader but also those of the followers. Closely associated with this influence or rather the one that emerges from this is the model influence. The leader becomes a model to be emulated, especially when she practices what is propagated. Such modeling demands, very many times, explications of the behaviour pattern by the leader herself. This influences the follower. A parent becomes a leader of her children as a model even for as small a thing as preserving food when, in a given situation, that parent consumes the food that is probably going to be discarded as excess. This has a profound influence on the children who understand that it is their responsibility not to waste food at any given situation.

Further to both is the situational influence. Neither the leader nor the influenced would have thought about any need for influencing. However, both happen to be in a situation where the leader performs or functions which influences the follower even though there was no previous planning done by the leader. A simple act of a taxi driver returning to the passenger a purse with currencies in it, discovered by the driver later after the passenger left, can have very great impact on the passenger who becomes a follower and the driver becomes the leader. The latter is influencing the former with certain values of honesty and responsibility, both of which are great qualities of a leader. Yet another, a fourth indeed, very common and very effective influence that happens in everyday life is communicating to influence. A leader speaks what has to be said at the precise moment of the need for others to understand or even learn. This communication in the appropriate time and in the relevant manner influences the listeners and gets desired changes in their behaviour too. A primary school teacher informs her pupils what notes or books have to be brought to the class the next day. Before the final bell rings, she repeats it so that the students will remember it. She gets possible acceptable behaviour from the children because she is influencing them through her communication.

On top of ideological, model, situational and communication influences, a leader also influences the followers through visuals presented. They could be one’s own or taken from other sources, including those in everyday living. Such visual presentations have great influence on the followers. A very common example for such visual influences is wall-posters or banners or cutouts or graffiti during election or sales campaigns. The impact is direct and possible influence can also be immediate. All five strategies of influence processes need not stand alone for a specific use. Some of them may be employed together, like ideological, modeling and communication happening together in certain cases.

It will be necessary to consider visual influence processes more seriously because they have become very common these days, particularly because it influences larger multitudes of people together and also social media presentations. Whether it influences a single individual or a group of people or a larger crowd, what matters is the type of visual that is made available to the followers who in turn will respond to them. One cannot deny the possibility of not being influenced at all for various reasons even after befitting visuals are presented.

Visuals could be those of single person or people or items in particular positions. Any viewer is likely to even interpret such visuals. In addition, it could be scenic attractions. These attractions can have far reaching impact on people far beyond the artistry in it. Similarly, there are visuals of historical importance and such instances can have great influence on those who happened to see them. More than these three, in modern times, there are plenty of designed visuals. The advertisements that appear in the media are designed in such a way that they are purposefully made to influence people. Further, there are also visuals which have emotional influence on the one who looks at them. Some of the tragic visuals could be made available with motives and definite designs of plans for people to respond or react to them. All these types of visuals have impact on the viewers or the clients or the followers so much so that the leader can achieve the desired results if or when she has planned for it.

There are some visuals selected to show its influence on the populace, in some cases, without even any objective in the mind of the designer of the visual while making it. The making of these visuals are chance occurrences. All the same, they have had very great impact on viewers most of who belong to the general public. It will be useful to know a little about them so that the visuals’ impact is better understood.

The victory day in the Time Square in New York was reported in Life Magazine with a photograph by Alfred Eisenstaedt of a US Marine kissing a white clad woman. The incident as it was reported narrated that the navy sailor embraced and kissed a total stranger, a dental assistant, at New York City’s Time Square. It happened immediately after Japan’s surrender was announced. Of course, the photograph does not show the face of the two clearly. However, an investigative team could not exactly locate the two persons. All the same, sufficient research was done to identify the two of them. A large number of people claimed to be the subjects of the photograph. It was proved later that the man in the picture was George Mendonsa. He died in 2019 at the age of 95. Greta Zimmer Friedman who died in 2016 at the age of 92 was identified as the woman in the picture. She was an assistant in a dental clinic. There had been plenty of research done by professors of physics and photography to prove that these were the two persons involved.

This anonymous picture had the greatest of the impact on people in proving to the world the fact of joy that the war was over. How fatigued people were with the war was visually presented by the act of George Mendonsa in public and the fact that the lady did not violently respond to it also showed the acceptance of the happy mood of people that the second world war was over. This is the reason why people all over the world who saw the visual did not feel outraged in the daring act of a man in public, that too, in the middle of a street.

This picture was taken by Nick Ut, AP photographer when a South Vietnamese plane dropped a Napalm bomb during the Vietnam War, in 1972. The girl, Phan Thi Kim Phuc, the naked girl in the picture was nine years old. Nick Ut gave her a little water after taking the picture suddenly as the girl came running after her clothes were burnt by fire. The child was taken to the hospital immediately and she had to undergo seventeen surgical procedures during a fourteen month stay in a hospital. As she grew up, she studied in Cuba where she met Bui Huy Toan, another Vietnamese student. They got married in 1992. She was given political asylum by Canada. Denise Chonge published a book on her titled ‘The Girl in the Picture’.

The visual was presented all over the world by news agencies. It had a terrible impact on the Vietnam War, negatively indeed for United States. The picture had its own contribution to the cessation of attacks on North Vietnam. The world condemned the United States for bringing such havoc onto innocent children and people. The devastating impact of the visual created an unimaginable disapproval of US actions in Vietnam which led to the end of the Vietnam War, of course, US was the loser.

Many an African country went through turmoil and civil wars which led to impoverishment of the people. The Rwandan genocide of 1994 is one of the most notorious. The picture shows the body of a man who was a primary school teacher. His emancipated remnants lying beneath a blackboard with a drawing of Africa as a map, was discovered in a classroom at a school 27 miles away from Kigali, the Rwandan capital. This man was one among hundreds of victims who were massacred in each village because of ethnic conflicts.

This picture spoke to the world. The United Nations itself took note of the tragedy of what was happening in Rwanda because of the publication of this picture. Other African nations woke up to the reality of the genocide in Rwanda. Help from various sources started reaching Rwanda. The ethnic groups learnt to end the genocide within a period of three months in 1994. The visual showed a stark reality as it happened in Rwanda and the whole world responded to it.

The picture of Allan Kurdi, three year old Cyrian boy, drowned in the Mediterranean Sea; his mother and brother also got drowned alongside; was one of the most harrowing pictures published ever creating sentiments of pity and fear in the minds of those who saw it. The young boy with the face downward sideways and with all the innocence of a child, as if he was sleeping on the seashore with waves touching him, brought to the world the problem of refugees from African countries engulfed in ethnic violence or foreign invasions. He was among many who were trying to reach the Greek island of Kos. The family paid for their escape into freedom. It was not only that the boat had double the number of people more than what it could actually carry but also that the life jackets which were provided to them were fake that resulted in the tragedy. The body of Allan Kurdi was found in the early hours of 03 September 2005.

The published picture of the child created waves of responses from all over the world. The then French President Francois Holland phoned Turkish President Recep Erdogan, and also some European leaders, and reminded them of the world’s responsibility regarding refugees. The then British Prime Minster David Cameron said that he was deeply moved by the images of Kurdi. What followed was a surge of donations to charities helping migrants and refugees. Simultaneously there were plenty of debates because of the global spreading of the picture and it created awareness about the migrant crisis. One visual picture could create ripples of responses and reactions from different parts of the world.

‘Spare my children and kill me instead’, Sister Ann Rose Nu Tawang knelt down and pleaded with a group of heavily armed police officers on 09 March 2021. In fact, her prayer made two of the officers kneel down and pray along with her. When protesters took to the streets in the capital of Kachin, the northern most state of Myanmar, police started surrounding them pointing their guns against them. It was then that the forty-five year old nun knelt down and begged the uniformed men not to shoot. However, her prayers were not heeded as one of the officers killed one man in front of her. Later she said that she felt like the world was crushing in front of her. Though she had influenced a couple of them, she couldn’t do the same with some of the others.

The picture of Sr. Ann Rose kneeling in front of the riot police asked a question to the whole world whether Myanmar should continue with state violence which kept killing innocent people. The visual influenced the imagination of several who spoke against the military junta and their atrocities against the common citizens. It had a far more significant message than an ordinary snapshot because it spoke about the eternal divide in the country among the common humans. One picture influenced the whole world.

A much more recent picture of a young girl skipping across the tarmac at Belgium military airport, while walking behind her parents, after being evacuated from Afghanistan on 28 August 2021, sent several messages to humanity. There were large numbers of responses from heads of states, philosophers and human rights groups about the messages on the value of freedom from the posture of the girl as she skips in the air.

The sombre body language of the two adults was in strong contrast to the joy of the girl. The subjects in the picture sent out strong appeals of what happened in Afghanistan and the tragedy of women in that country. Many who saw the picture hoped the child’s future would definitely be better in Belgium as she would be allowed necessary freedom unlike what could happen if she remained in Afghanistan. Guy Verhofstadt, former Prime Minister of Belgium, thought that the photo represented the result of protection of refugees. Several political leaders also commented almost in similar lines asking countries to accept fleeing Afghans.

‘One look is worth a thousand words’ is a slogan that is attributed to Fred R. Bernard. An advertising executive, he published this as an advertisement in Printers Inc in 1921. All the same, it should be recorded that this slogan is also attributed to an ancient Chinese philosopher. Bernard changed the slogan after six years. He wrote ‘one picture is worth ten thousand words’. The slogan is also attributed to Napoleon for saying that ‘a picture is worth a thousand words’. Visuals can replace description of a thousand words very easily. They have immense impacts on human minds. The responses and reactions are mostly unpredictable; more so in the modern world of quick reporting and equally quick responding.



By Prof Sunney Tharappan
Prof Sunney Tharappan, is director of College for Leadership and HRD, Mangaluru. He trains and writes and lives in Mangaluru.
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Comment on this article

  • John, Mangalore

    Sat, Nov 20 2021

    Sad to see above little boy's dead picture, but this refugee business itself a sham, where one world communist and socialist people and war mafia use them for their propaganda and agenda using and creating race / religion wars to destabilize nations on some pretext to create refugees then create more chaos in their targeted countries using these refugees. Then liberalism ( another name for communism) in the name of humanity, equal rights and justice, then liberal democrat hold control as currently in many europian nations and in the west. Finally no democracy but ruthless communist dictatorship or their communist new world order. Basically (create) divide and rule policy. Then use virus and vaccines to downsize the population for better control. That's what happenning in front our eyes presently across the world.

  • Sunitha, Mangalore

    Fri, Nov 19 2021

    An excellent article!

  • juliana, udupi

    Fri, Nov 19 2021

    Last picture is less understood to the author. The girl in view is thrilled at the new atmosphere and hence dancing. Otherwise a little child may not understand the complexities of life at her age.

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