Skip to content

Learning From Mistakes Is What Separates Truly Revolutionary Leaders From Everyone Else

2022 February 27
by Greg Satell

In 1919, Mahatma Gandhi, who had long established himself as a revolutionary leader of uncommon strategic acumen, called for a general strike throughout India to protest unjust laws levied on his people by the British. It was, at least at first, an enormous success. In Mumbai, for example, 80% of shops closed their doors.

Yet things soon got out of hand. What began as peaceful protests against oppression turned violent. Riots broke out. The moral high ground that Gandhi so coveted—and relied on to accomplish his objectives—would crumble under his feat. Things ended with a horrible massacre at Amritsar. Gandhi would later call it his Himalayan miscalculation.

Yet that wasn’t the end of the story. Not by a long shot. He not only admitted his mistake, he vowed to learn from it. Ten years later, when the opportunity presented itself, he took a very different tack, which led to the Salt March and became his greatest triumph. It is often the ability to learn from mistakes that makes the difference between success and failure.

A Flash Of Insight That Would Overthrow A Dictator

One day in 1998, a group of five friends met in a cafe in Belgrade. Although still in their 20s, they were already experienced activists and most of what they experienced was failure. In 1992, they had taken part in student protests to protest the war in Bosnia. Yet much like the #Occupy protests that would later spread across the world, they never amounted to much.

In 1996, they took to the streets to support Zajedno, a coalition of opposition parties aligned against Slobodan Milošević. Although the ruling party clearly lost at the polls, the Serbian dictator annulled the election. Massive protests broke out, but unfortunately, the opposition coalition was unable to maintain unity and it was all for basically naught.

It was these defeats that they began to examine in 1998. They took a hard look at what had worked and what didn’t. They knew that they could get people to the polls and they knew that if people went to the polls they could win the Presidential election coming up in 2000. They also knew, from bitter experience, that if Milošević lost the election he would try to steal it.

So that’s what they planned for. They created a movement called Otpor that was steeped in patriotic imagery from the World War II resistance. It grew slowly at first, amounting to only a few hundred members after a year. But by the time the elections came around in 2000, Otpor’s ranks swelled to 70,000 and had grown into a potent political force.

When the Serbian strongman tried to falsify the election results massive protests, now known as the Bulldozer Revolution broke out. This time Otpor was able to enforce unity among the opposition parties, having lost the confidence of the military and police forces, Milošević was forced to give in. He would later be extradited to The Hague and die in his prison cell.

The Epiphany That Would Lead To The Lean Startup

In 1999, the day before his eighth startup went public, Steve Blank decided to retire at the age of 45. With time to reflect, he sat in a ski lodge and began to write a memoir with a “lessons learned” section at the end of each chapter. “In hindsight, it was a catharsis of moving from one part of my life to another,” he told me.

What he realized was that the idea a business started with was always wrong. Sometimes it was off by a little, sometimes it was off by a lot, but it was always wrong. The key to success was not a better idea, necessarily, but identifying and fixing its flaws before you ran out of money. To do that you needed to go and talk to customers.

“I was 80 pages in when I realized there was a pattern. When I sat inside the building things didn’t go very well, but when I got outside the building things turned around and got much better,” he remembers. Pursuing customer development even before product development was the essential insight behind the Lean Startup movement.

Today, lean startup methods have gone beyond startups been proven useful for large corporations, scientific institutions and even government agencies. The essential epiphany that made it possible came not from divine enlightenment, but rather through hard examination of two decades of mistakes and the will to change tack.

The Unmasking Of The Most Deadly Disease

In 1891, Dr. William Coley had an unusual idea. Inspired by an obscure case, in which a man who had contracted a severe infection was cured of cancer, the young doctor purposely infected a tumor on his patient’s neck with a heavy dose of bacteria. Miraculously, the tumor vanished and the patient remained cancer free even five years later.

Looking to repeat his success, he created a special brew of toxins designed to jump-start the immune system. Unfortunately, he was never able to replicate his initial results consistently. His idea was met with skepticism by the medical community and, when radiation therapy was developed in the early 20th century, Coley’s research was largely forgotten.

Yet his daughter, Helen Coley Nauts, kept the dream alive. With a $2000 grant from Nelson Rockefeller she founded the Cancer Research Institute in 1953 to study immunological approaches to cancer. While mostly dismissed by the medical community, it did inspire a small cadre of devotees to keep looking, albeit mostly in vain.

A breakthrough came in 1996, when a researcher named Jim Allison published a landmark paper that added a new twist to the mystery. Allison had a hunch that Coley’s initial insight that our immune system can fight cancer was correct. However, he had discovered a “switch” that would shut off the immune response and believed that he could switch it back on.

As it turned out, Allison got it right and would win the Nobel Prize for his discovery of cancer immunotherapy. Coley’s initial idea wasn’t wrong, exactly, just incomplete. He had a piece of the puzzle, but not all of it. What he failed to see was the diabolical nature of the disease itself, some forms of which, “learned” to outwit our immune system by switching it off.

Unfortunately, we can be proved “right” in the end, and still fail. Every idea is flawed in some way, it’s just that sometimes those flaws are more disabling than others.

To Change The World, You Must First Conquer Yourself

There’s nothing quite like the rapture of an epiphany, that initial flash of insight which is still pure and innocent, before the harsh realities of the world muck it up with a bunch of inconvenient facts, corollaries and exceptions. That’s when we can give ourselves to it wholeheartedly, without equivocation or bearing the burden of creeping doubt.

Yet our ideas never turn out like we think they will. To succeed, they must grow and adapt to the world around them. Gandhi, fresh off stunning victories gaining rights for Indians in South Africa, didn’t realize how his methods could go so horribly awry. The Otpor activists, Steve Blank, William Coley and so many others had similar blind spots.

What I’ve found in my research of revolutionary changemakers is that what makes the difference between success or failure isn’t necessarily the brilliance of the initial idea or even the passion and diligence of those who work to bring it about, but their ability to learn things along the way. They didn’t merely stay the course, they corrected it as many times as they had to until they won.

Unfortunately, most never learn that simple lesson. They would rather make a point than make a difference and wear their failures like a badge of honor. After all, who but the most righteous could inspire such opposition? And who but the most pure could continue to persevere in the face of such constant defeat?

That’s the really tough thing about change. To truly bring it about, we first must change ourselves.

– Greg

Image: Wikipedia




No comments yet

Leave a Reply

Note: You can use basic XHTML in your comments. Your email address will never be published.

Subscribe to this comment feed via RSS