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Revolutions Don’t Begin With a Slogan, They Begin With A Cause

2022 June 26
by Greg Satell

Ukrainian President Volodomyr Zelenski has been compared to great orators like Winston Churchill. He vowed to the English House of Commons to fight “in the forests, in the fields, on the shores, in the streets.” In a speech to the US Congress he told President Biden, “​​Being the leader of the world means to be the leader of peace.”

While new to politics, Zelensky is no neophyte when it comes to delivering a line. A longtime actor and comic who was the voice of “Paddington” in the Ukrainian adaptations of the hit movie, his production company Kvartal 95 produced a series of hits. It would be easy to boil his effectiveness down to his communication skills.

That would be a mistake. Zelenski’s eloquence derives its power from the plight of his people, their passion for freedom and their unwillingness to return to an often troubled past. One reason why change so often fails is that we spend so much time focusing on wordsmithing that we neglect why the need for change arose in the first place. That is where we must start.

Gandhi’s Satyagraha

As a young man, Mohandis Gandhi wasn’t the type of person you would notice. Impulsive and undisciplined, he was also so shy as a young lawyer that he could hardly bring himself to speak in open court. With his law career failing, he accepted an offer to represent the cousin of a wealthy muslim merchant in South Africa.

Upon his arrival, Gandhi was subjected to humiliation on a train and it changed him. His sense of dignity offended, he decided to fight back. Yet he would do so not by attacking his enemies, but by targeting his own weaknesses. The aim, as he put it, was “the vindication of truth not by affliction of suffering on the opponent, but on one’s self.”

His method of Satyagraha was not passive resistance as commonly understood, which he considered a “weapon of the weak.” In fact, it was extremely strategic. Its aim was to undermine his opponents legitimacy and, in doing so, their freedom of action. He sought to back them into a corner in which both action and inaction would yield essentially the same result —an upending of the existing order.

At its core, Satyagraha is intended to be a quest for truth. The aim is to get your opponents to confront themselves. As the South African leader Jan Smuts would put it.  “It was my fate to be the antagonist of a man for whom even then I had the highest respect… For me — the defender of law and order — there was the usual trying situation, the odium of carrying out the law, which had not strong popular support.”

Stalin’s Gift That Just Kept Giving

One of the first things a visitor to Warsaw will notice is the Palace of Culture. When arrived in the country in 1997, it dominated the skyline. A replica of the Seven Sisters buildings in Moscow, it was forced upon the Polish people by Stalin in 1955 and for decades it served as a reminder of Soviet domination.

I remember attending a business meeting there where my host pointed out that it had the best view in Warsaw, because it was the only place where you couldn’t see the Palace of Culture. Its tower had the feel of Sauron, the evil force in J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings series. It was more than just a foreign presence at the heart of the capital city. It was an all-watching eye, a reminder that Poles’ lives were not fully their own.

We remember the Solidarity movement in Poland as a struggle for labor against communism and economics were certainly part of it. But the larger grievance was encapsulated in the Palace of Culture, the feeling of being completely subjugated by another nation. Poles felt it deeply and never truly accepted Soviet rule.

Much like Gandhi on the train, it was that emotional sense of injury that pushed the Polish people to be passionate about change and it is similar forces that propel the Ukrainians now. Vladimir Putin, much like Stalin before him, has unwittingly empowered his own opposition by failing to recognize their identity and attempting to subjugate their identity,

Today, the Palace of Culture still stands, albeit enfeebled by the modern skyscrapers bustling with commercial activity, that surround and obscure it.

Steve Jobs And The Products That Sucked

Steve Jobs didn’t believe in market research. He once explained, “Our job is to figure out what they’re going to want before they do. I think Henry Ford once said, ‘If I’d ask customers what they wanted, they would’ve told me a faster horse.’ People don’t know what they want until you show it to them.” That’s why he didn’t start out with a product idea, but something that “sucked”

Computers sucked. They were ugly and hard to use. That’s what drove him to create the Macintosh. Music players sucked. He wanted something that would put 1000 songs in his pocket. That’s what drove him to create the iPod. Phones sucked. That’s what drove him to create the iPhone. Much like Gandhi’s humiliation and the Palace of culture, these things offended his sensibilities.

If you want to create change in this world, you need to identify a grievance that people care about. Because if people don’t see a problem, they’re not going to care about your solution. It doesn’t matter if it’s in your team, your organization, your industry or throughout society as a whole. Change isn’t about ideas, it’s about solving meaningful problems.

When we begin to work with a leadership team on a transformational initiative, we always start out asking about what problem they are trying to solve. Often, they don’t know. There are so many wonderful things to adopt that it’s easy to fall into the trap of identifying a solution before you’ve actually defined a problem.

Don’t Let Talking About Change Undermine Your Ability To Achieve It

Every leader wants to be seen at the vanguard of change. The truth is, it’s relatively easy to announce a change initiative, hire vendors to implement new technologies and then bring in change consultants to hone messaging and arrange training, but these things are unlikely to bring about successful transformation.

In fact, evidence suggests that all of the talk about change may be undermining our ability to achieve it. One survey found that 44% of employees say they don’t understand the change they’re being asked to make, and 38% say they don’t agree with it. A clear majority, 65% of respondents complained of “change fatigue.”

Change doesn’t begin with an idea. It starts with identifying a meaningful problem. That’s why it’s so important that before you start an initiative you ask questions like, ask questions like, “What problem are we trying to solve? Is there a general consensus that it’s a problem we need to solve? How would solving it impact our business?

When we look at transformational leaders who achieved great things, the first thing we tend to notice is their words, not the cause that compelled them to act. The words are easy to replicate. Anyone can speak them. But If you want to create change in this world, you need to identify a grievance that people care about. Because if people don’t see a problem, they’re not going to care about your solution.


Greg Satell is a transformation & change expert, international keynote speaker, 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, and follow him on Twitter @DigitalTonto

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Image: Wikimedia Commons

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