Archive for January, 2014

Idealism and Leading Change

NUGGET : Idealism is critical fuel for change and an important force for leaders to recognize and support – especially when it meets the often refiner’s fire of challenge from the status quo.


I hear the media commenting in critical tones, that President Obama is finally setting a more “realistic” agenda, tempering his vision and accepting what he cannot change. But without intending to make any point about the CONTENT of the political climate in the US, I can’t pass up a teaching point about large system change: people who lead significant change can only do so with an initially radical agenda. Idealism is critical fuel for change – even though the full cycle of change may take years or even decades.

Every major social and organizational change starts outside the mainstream.

It challenges and rankles the status quo.  In its early stages, most people may call the change idealistic, naïve, even subversive or dangerous. Think about the earliest stirrings of the civil rights movement in the US (even before the Abolishionists) or the still smoldering popular movements in the Middle East. Look at the evolution of social security, personal computers, and closer to home for me and my home country in the 80’s and 90’s, the end of apartheid. Think of the changes happening now around many organizations as they transition from pyramid/top down ways of operating to horizontal supply chains and networks.

The course of change is a grand battle between the status quo and the new. In that battle, a new idea emerges, is continually tested, often temporarily defeated, and sometimes rises again in stronger or more refined forms. Sometimes the new idea proves to be a bad one or doesn’t really solve an important problem, and is sent to the graveyard of failed experiments. But the important point is this: every big change needs idealistic, visionary, passionately committed proponents. Their idealism and passion may seem, or even be, naïve. After all, “nobody who really knows physics would ever suggest such a radical idea as a flying machine.”

I’d like to end this thought piece with Steve Jobs’ quote about the role of idealism. I will have more to say about this in future blogs where we look at how large system change really progresses over time – and sometimes it DOES take time – more than the 24 hour news cycle, a president’s term of office, or even a lifetime:

Here’s to the crazy ones. The misfits. The rebels. The troublemakers. The round pegs in the square holes. The ones who see things differently. They’re not fond of rules, and they have no respect for the status-quo. You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify, or vilify them. But the only thing you can’t do is ignore them. Because they change things. They push the human race forward. And while some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius. Because the ones who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who do.
Steve Jobs

Mandela Lesson 3: Inclusiveness – For Leadership, for Life

NUGGET : In times of change and complexity it is natural to retreat to an us/them stance. But, as Mandela’s life shows us, it’s often the opposite we need: a more inclusive view of people and ideas.

In times of change, we are tempted to draw hard boundaries to protect what is “me” (the individual) or “us” (my group) from what is “the other(s).” Given today’s pace of change and complexity, and how we are thrown together in a global melting pot, it is easy to see why there is so much “us/them” conflict. And because it is so juicy for the media, it gets amplified and takes on battle proportions, whether in one-one relationships (People Magazine), government (Republicans and Democrats in the US Congress), society (Middle East), in business (marketing vs. engineering) or in business vs. society (Wall Street vs. Main Street). Global communications and technology, and the economic imperative to cooperate are pressuring us to soften we/they boundaries, however, and to broaden the playing field for relationships and ideas. And that’s a good thing, for we all affect each other’s ability to survive and thrive as we continue to shape a new era of profound connection.


Opening up to differences is not easy, though, even in more stable times. This may be one reason for our fascination with Nelson Mandela. Somehow, he managed to both hold ground for his values and his race, while also being open to new ideas and magnanimous with people who created and enforced apartheid. Everybody knows about his putting on the Springbok rugby jersey before he presented South Africa’s new world champions with their trophy in 1995. The Springboks and rugby teams in general were considered “white” teams – teams of the oppressor, so Mandela in a Springbok shirt was a sign of a new order.

His respect for people who were different was not the only form of inclusion that Mandela modeled. One lesser-known fact is his openness to intellectual challenge – to new ideas. Here’s one of many examples: In the early 90’s, this communist sympathizer went to Europe and was exposed to a broad array of economic ideas. After many conversations and debates with world economic leaders about the best way forward for South Africa, Mandela became an advocate for a more free market approach. He rose above ideology, looked objectively at the realities of the evolving and globalizing economic and social milieu, explored options, and changed his mind.

Even though many of us would have empathized with a more retribution-oriented Mandela, his inclusive actions raise an important existential question: why is it so difficult to move beyond demonizing “others” to not only accept people who are different from us, but also to step into their shoes and world? This is a question to ask whenever we meet and feel resistant to or even hostile towards ideas and people who are different from us, in daily life, in the workplace, in the world at large.

An inclusive approach to diversity is not a trivial phenomenon in these turbulent times. Many forces are throwing us together into a global and local melting pot. We can try to create enclaves of the “just like us” people and ideas in society or in our workplaces. This kind of self-imposed isolation can create temporary security and it also may help clarify and evolve deeper values. But blind, reactive, and defensive isolation, demonization of others, and hostility often just put a temporary lid on the boiling pot of change — delaying the inevitable and increasing the chances of a more violent upheaval in the future.

The automatic response to a confusion of voices and ideas is often to “batten down the hatches.” We need to be more open and courageous than that. There are many times, of course, when we must take a stand. But most of us are pretty good at that. Where we need to stretch and grow is toward more openness and appreciation for diversity. Mandela’s larger than life presence is a call to action on that account.

In times of change and complexity it is natural to retreat to an us/them stance. But, as Mandela’s life shows us, it’s often the opposite we need: a more inclusive view of people and ideas.

For more on this topic, see the third circle in The Shadow Side of Power: Lessons for Leaders