The greatest misconception about change is that it’s about persuasion. All too often, we think that once people understand our idea, they will embrace it. Nothing can be further from the truth. Anybody who’s ever been married or had kids knows how difficult it can be to convince even a single person of something.
Clearly, if you intend to influence an entire organization — much less an entire society — of something, you have to assume the deck is stacked against you. Still, organizations routinely pay armies of change management consultants to spend endless billable hours wordsmithing internal marketing campaigns. No wonder change so often fails.
The truth is that change isn’t about persuasion, but power. If you want change and can access the power to implement it, it will happen. If not, it won’t. That’s why effective change agents learn to leverage multiple sources of power. They mobilize people to influence institutions that can further their cause. That’s how you bring genuine transformation about.
The Paradox Of Hard Power
In early March, 2022 the prominent political scientist John Mearsheimer gave an interview to The New Yorker in which he argued that the United States had blundered greatly in its support of Ukraine. According to his theory we failed to recognize Russia’s role as a great power and its right to dictate certain things to its smaller and weaker neighbor.
That conclusion had a shelf like of about a week. Very quickly, the idea that America should have left Ukraine at the mercy of Russia became not only morally questionable, but patently absurd. How could such a respected expert of foreign affairs get things so wrong? Part of the reason has to do with his misinterpretation of key facts, but perhaps an even greater problem is his misunderstanding of power.
Mearsheimer’s error is that he focused on hard power — the power to coerce — to the exclusion of everything else. The problem with hard power is that the more you use it, the weaker it gets. After brutalizing its neighbors and meddling in the affairs of western nations for over a decade, Vladimir Putin had unleashed forces whose power greatly exceeded Russia’s.