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How Transformational Leaders Learn To Overcome Failure

2020 March 15
by Greg Satell

When we think of great leaders their great successes usually come to mind. We picture Washington crossing the Delaware or Gandhi leading massive throngs or Steve Jobs standing triumphantly on stage. It is moments of triumph such as these that make indelible marks on history’s consciousness.

While researching my book, Cascades, however, what struck me most is how often successful change movements began with failure. It seems that those later, more triumphant moments can blind us to the struggles that come before. That can give us a mistaken view of what it takes to drive transformational change.

To be clear, these early and sometimes tragic failures are not simply the result of bad luck. Rather they happen because most new leaders are not ready to lead and make novice mistakes. The difference, I have found, between truly transformational leaders and those that fail isn’t so much innate talent or even ambition, but their ability to learn along the way.

A Himalayan Miscalculation

Today, we remember Mohandas Gandhi as the “Mahatma,” an iconic figure, superlatively wise and saintly in demeanor. His greatest triumph, the Salt March, remains an enduring symbol of the power of nonviolent activism, which has inspired generations to work constructively toward positive change in the world.

What many overlook, however, is that ten years before that historic event Gandhi embarked on a similar effort that would fail so tragically he would come to regard it as his Himalayan miscalculation. It was, in fact, what he learned from the earlier failure that helped make the Salt March such a remarkable success.

In 1919, he called for a nationwide series of strikes and boycotts to protest against unjust laws, called the Rowlatt Acts, passed by the British Raj. These protests were successful at first, but soon spun wildly out of control and eventually led to the massacre at Amritsar, in which British soldiers left hundreds dead and more than a thousand wounded.

Most people would have simply concluded that the British were far too cruel and brutal to be dealt with peacefully. Yet Gandhi realized that he had not sufficiently indoctrinated the protestors in his philosophy of Satyagraha. So he spent the next decade creating a dedicated cadre of devoted and disciplined followers.

When the opportunity arose again in 1930 Gandhi would not call for nationwide protests, but set out on the Salt March with 70 or 80 of his closest disciples. Their nonviolent discipline inspired the nation and the world. That’s what led to Gandhi’s ultimate victory, Indian independence, in 1947.

Learning To Overthrow A Dictator

If you looked at Serbia in 1999, you probably wouldn’t have noticed anything amiss. The country was ruled, as it had been for a decade, by Slobodan Milošević, whose power was nearly absolute. There was no meaningful political opposition or even an active protest movement. Milošević, it seemed, would be ruler for life.

Yet just a year later he was voted out of power. When he tried to steal the election, massive protests broke out and, when he lost the support of the military and security services, he was forced to concede. Two years later, he was tried at The Hague for crimes against humanity and found guilty. He would die in his prison cell in 2006.

However, the success of these protests was the product of earlier failures. There were student protests in 1992 that, much like the “Occupy” protests later in the US, quickly dissipated with little to show for the effort. Later the Zajedno (together) opposition coalition had some initial success, but then fell apart into disunity.

In 1998, veterans of both protests met in a coffee shop. They reflected on past failures and were determined not to repeat the same mistakes. Instead of looking for immediate results, they would use what they learned about organizing protests to build a massive networked organization, called Otpor, that would transcend political factions.

They had learned that if they could mobilize the public that they could beat Milošević at the polls and that, just like in 1996, he would deny the results. However, this time they would be prepared. Instead of disorganized protests, the regime faced an organization of 70,000 trained activists who inspired the nation and brought down a dictator.

A Wunderkind’s Fall From Grace

There is probably no business leader in history more iconic than Steve Jobs. We remember him not only for the incredible products he created, but the mastery with which he marketed them. Apple’s product launches became vastly more than mere business events, but almost cultural celebrations of expanding the limits of possibility.

What most people fail to realize about Steve Jobs, however, is how much he changed over the course of his career. Getting fired from Apple, the company he founded, was an excruciatingly traumatic experience. It forced him to come to terms with some of the more destructive parts of his personality.

While the Macintosh is rightfully seen today as a pathbreaking product, most people forget that, initially at least, it wasn’t profitable. After leaving Apple he started NeXT Computer which, although hailed for its design, also flopped. Along the way he bought Pixar, which struggled for years before finally becoming successful.

When Jobs returned to Apple in 1997 he was a very different leader, more open to taking in the ideas of others. Although he became enamored with iMovie, his team convinced him that digital music was a better bet and the iPod became the new Apple’s first big hit. Later, even though he was dead set against allowing outside developers to create software for the iPhone, he eventually relented and created the App store.

Before You Can Change The World, You First Must Change Yourself

We tend to look back at transformational leaders and see greatness in them from the start. The truth is that lots of people have elements of greatness in them, but never amount to much. It is the ability to overcome our tragic flaws that makes the difference between outsized achievement and mediocrity.

When Gandhi began his career as a lawyer he was so shy that he couldn’t speak up in court. Before the founders of Otpor became leaders of a massive movement, they were just kids who wanted to party and listen to rock and roll. Steve Jobs was always talented, was so difficult to deal with even his allies on Apple’s board knew he needed to go.

Most people never overcome their flaws. Instead, they make accommodations with them. It would have been easy for Gandhi to blame the British for his “Himalayan Miscalculation,” just as it would have been easy for the Otpor founders to blame Milošević for their struggles and for Jobs to continue to swing at windmills, but they didn’t. Instead, they found the capacity to change.

We all have our talents, but innate ability will only take you so far. In the final analysis, what makes transformational leaders different is their ability to transform themselves to suit the needs of  their mission.

– Greg

Image: Wikimedia Commons

4 Responses leave one →
  1. Prathap permalink
    March 16, 2020

    Excellent article, Greg! Great transformations require a great deal of introspection, ability to learn from failures and self-renewal . “It is the ability to overcome our tragic flaws that makes the difference between outsized achievement and mediocrity”

    By the way, just a small correction – India won Independence in 1947 and not in ’48.

  2. March 16, 2020

    Ooops! Great catch! Fixed now:-)

    – Greg

  3. March 18, 2020

    Whoa! Greg, this is a fabulous article. Spot On Point.

  4. March 18, 2020

    Thanks Miguel!


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