Why Business Leaders Need To Learn About Social And Political Movements

Greg Satell
6 min readOct 7, 2023
Image: Wikimedia Commons

Business leaders have long been fascinated by the military. When Alfred Sloan created the modern corporation at General Motors, he based it on the army. In Wall Street, the antihero Gordon Gecko habitually quoted Sun Tzu. Retired generals like Stanley McChrystal earn huge fees advising CEOs and speaking to corporate conferences.

But what about nonviolent conflict? Research has shown non-violent movements are far more successful than violent uprisings, prevailing against powerful regimes against seemingly insurmountable odds. Yet, apart from a stray Gandhi quote here or Martin Luther King Jr. slide there, these go largely unexamined in the business world.

That’s a mistake. As I explained in Cascades, business leaders can learn a lot from the principles of social and political movements. There is abundant scholarship, going back decades, about why efforts succeed and fail. We know what works and what doesn’t. If you’re serious about being a transformational leader, you need to understand these strategies.

We Need To Learn About Not Only Successes — But Failures Too

Organizations are often inscrutable and hard to research. That’s why the preferred mode of analysis is case studies in which insiders are interviewed and a particular situation is interpreted by investigators. These can be helpful, but they also have severe limitations.

First, with shareholders and customers to please, managers are rarely eager to talk about failures. So we usually only hear about successes. Those, of course, are important but also subject to survivorship bias. For example, if a risky strategy results in 1% of the firms being wildly successful and 99% going out of business, then we’ll tend to hear glowing accounts of that lucky 1% and we’ll miss the vast majority that flamed out.

Social and political movements, on the other hand, are largely public events. Gandhi’s Himalayan miscalculation is just as well documented as his triumphant Salt March. We know as much about the failures of #Occupy as we do the ultimate success of the LGBTQ movement. We can look at similar strategies in different contexts and different strategies in similar contexts.

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Greg Satell

Co-Founder: ChangeOS | Bestselling Author, Keynote Speaker, Wharton Lecturer, HBR Contributor, - Learn more at www.GregSatell.com