Infectious ideas – or ‘memes’—are powerful communication tools that pack a great deal of conceptual and emotional content into a simple phrase, sound or symbol. Leadership ideas that can be turned into memes spread successfully through the organisation, conveying huge amounts of information.
The term ‘meme’ was coined by the evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, author of The Selfish Gene. Dawkins sees memes as ideas and cultural phenomena that spread through whole populations in the way that successful genes are passed on through species.
Ideas that evolve
Meme theory speculates that memes can be said to ‘evolve’: as they pass through hundreds of thousands of minds, so the memes take on a distinctive meaning and emotional content, which is the product of all of those minds, not any one individual mind.
Jay Arthur of KnowWare International gives his definition of a meme:
- A self-explanatory symbol that represents a complete idea
- The simplest, most elegant and contagious representation of the idea
- A symbol which can be words, pictures, sounds or actions
- An idea that can dictate and orchestrate (i.e. motivate) patterns of human behavior
- A replicator which leaves copies of itself as it spreads from mind to mind
- A “mind virus” that is contagious to the extent that it is laced with emotion.
According to Arthur, for a meme to become contagious it needs: extreme simplicity in terms of the core message; emotional impact – the stronger the better; critical mass – enough people must be exposed to it
Some of the most powerful memes are advertising slogans.
Many of these marketing memes are so powerful that they also represent a message from the leadership to the organisation; an encapsulation of what the organisation stands for, that affects everything the team does.
Examples of such memes might be
- Apple Inc: Think different
- Macdonalds: You got it
- Intel : Intel Inside
Leaders who are able to create powerful memes – simple, symbolic phrases or images that convey an inspiring emotional content – that express their core ideas will be able to communicate their vision highly effectively.
More importantly, their ideas (memes) will be spread throughout the organisation, changing subtly but never losing the core message, becoming more powerful in the process.