Change isn’t what it used to be. Where earlier generations had leaders like Gandhi, King and Mandela, today’s change efforts seem rudderless. Movements like #Occupy, Black Lives Matter and #MeToo hold marches replete with strident calls for change, but they never seem to get anywhere. Lots of sound and fury, signifying nothing.
Many believe that if only these movements had more charismatic leaders or more inspiring oratory they would be able to gain more traction. Others say that society has become too corrupt and our politics too coarse to make change happen. They want to blow the system up, not work within it.
The truth is that leadership has little to do with fancy speeches or clever slogans. The notion that today’s call for change face greater opposition than the British Raj, Jim Crow or Apartheid is simply laughable. In researching my book, Cascades, however, I found that, despite important differences, transformational leaders had these four things in common.
1. They Work To Make A Difference, Not Just Make A Point
When the #Occupy Wall Street movement broke out in 2011, it inspired millions with its rallying call,, “We are the 99%.” Yet soon it became clear that all was not well. As New York Times columnist Joe Nocera noted, the group “had plenty of grievances, aimed mainly at the ‘oppressive” power of corporations,’ but “never got beyond their own slogans.” It soon fizzled out, a massive waste of time.
Making lots of noise and achieving little seems to be a common theme among the failed revolutions of today. All too often they believe that the righteousness of their cause, along with some clever memes on social media, will win the day. It won’t. Real change requires real work. You have to want to make a difference, not just make a point
It’s not just young activists who make this mistake. Corporate bigwigs often fall into the same trap. They seek to “disrupt” without any real affirmative plan for change. In Lights Out, Wall Street Journal reporters Thomas Gryta and Ted Mann chronicle how General Electric CEO Jerrfey Immelt tried mightily to gin up the stock price and project an innovative image, but did little to create actual value.
For transformative leaders, making a difference is the real point. Thurgood Marshall, to take just one example, spent decades working in relative obscurity, not to mention facing significant danger, before he triumphed in Brown vs. Board of Education. If we are to achieve anything of significance, we need to think less about disruption and more about tackling grand challenges.
2. They Lead With Values
Today, we regard Nelson Mandela as an almost saintly figure, but it wasn’t always that way. In fact, throughout his career as an activist, he was accused of being a communist, an anarchist and worse. When confronted with these accusations, however, he always pointed out that no one had to guess what he believed in, because it was written down in the Freedom Charter in 1955.
Being explicit about values helped to signal to external stakeholders, such as international institutions, that the anti-Aparthied activists shared common values with them. In fact, although the Freedom Charter was a truly revolutionary document, its call for things like equal rights and equal protection would be considered unremarkable in most societies.
After Apartheid fell and Mandela rose to power, the values spelled out in the Freedom Charter became important constraints. To uphold the stated principle that “all should be equal under the law,” his government couldn’t oppress whites. His reconciliation efforts are a big part of the reason he is so revered today.
Values are just as powerful in a corporate context for many of the same reasons. In Lou Gerstner’s IBM turnaround in the 1990s, for example, he not only put forth serving customers as an important value, he also made it clear that he was willing to forego revenue on every sale to make good on it. His willingness to incur costs showed his values were more than lip service.
Make no mistake. Every significant change comes with costs and being explicit about values makes it clear what costs you are willing to incur. Far too many would-be change leaders fail to be explicit about their values because they don’t want to be constrained in any way. It’s much easier to spout slogans like “Disrupt” or “Innovate or Die” than to think seriously about what change will cost you and others.
3. They Shape Networks
The March on Washington was a defining moment for the civil rights movement and for America. So it shouldn’t be surprising that those seeking change today, such as Black Lives Matter and the modern women’s movement, try to emulate that earlier success with marches of their own. These efforts consistently fail to achieve anything real and, in fact, often do significant damage when they spin out of control.
The truth is that the civil rights movement didn’t become powerful because it held the March on Washington. In fact, it was very much the opposite. The March on Washington was held because the civil rights movements had already become powerful. It wasn’t an opening shot, but part of the end game, the culmination of decades of painstaking work of not just Martin Luther King Jr., but a broad array of leaders.
General Stanley McChrystal took a similar approach in revamping the US Special Forces in Iraq to fight Al Qaeda. Realizing that a conventional approach would not be effective against an unconventional opponent, he declared that “it takes a network to defeat a network and shifted his “focus from moving pieces on the board to shaping the ecosystem.”
The truth is that it is networks of small groups, loosely connected but united by a shared purpose that drives transformational change. Effective leaders know that their role is to empower others by helping to connect people in order to achieve that purpose.
4. They Learn From Their Mistakes
One of the most surprising things I found in my research is how consistently early efforts failed. The first march on Washington, the Woman Suffrage Procession of 1913, quickly spiraled out of control. Gandhi’s first efforts to bring disobedience to India ended so horribly he would later call it his Himalayan miscalculation. Steve jobs, quite famously, was fired from Apple.
What made the difference wasn’t the mistakes they made, but how they learned from them. Alice Paul developed more innovative strategies, such as the Silent Sentinel protests, which were less vulnerable to disruption. Suffrage was won in 1919. Gandhi replaced widespread protests with the Salt March. Steve Jobs became more focused and built the World’s most valuable company.
Unfortunately, many of today’s activists don’t seem to have the same strategic flexibility. Once the #Occupy protesters went home, they never seemed to come up with an alternative approach. The riots at Ferguson were replaced, six years later, by the George Floyd riots. The modern women’s movement continues to march, with little to show for it.
None of this is to say that these causes are unworthy or that they are doomed to failure. What it does mean is that, if they are to succeed, they need to understand how revolutions fail and do something different. In an age of disruption, the only viable strategy is to adapt.
Greg Satell is an international keynote speaker, adviser and bestselling author of Cascades: How to Create a Movement that Drives Transformational Change. His previous effort, Mapping Innovation, was selected as one of the best business books of 2017. You can learn more about Greg on his website, GregSatell.com and follow him on Twitter @DigitalTonto