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4 Things That I Learned About Change From The Orange Revolution

2024 January 21
by Greg Satell

In 2004, I joined a KP Media, the leading news organization in Ukraine, where I would become Co-CEO. In the runup to the presidential election that year, the opposition candidate for president, a technocratic reformer named Viktor Yushchenko, was poisoned by pro-Russian agents. He survived, but his face was permanently disfigured.

In that moment, the once mild-mannered banker was transformed into an inspirational leader. His opponent, an almost cartoonish thug named Viktor Yanukovych, tried to falsify the election. Hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians poured into the streets to protest in what came to be known as the Orange Revolution.

It was very much an awakening. That was the moment when Ukraine, although not yet ready to turn away from Russia, began to insist on its independence and freedom, something that Vladimir Putin wasn’t willing to respect. It was also a turning point for me. It would permanently change how I saw the world and how it works. Here are four things I learned.

1. Power Doesn’t Work Like We Typically Think It Does

One of the first things I noticed about the Orange Revolution was that nobody with any conventional form of power had any ability to shape events at all. In fact, nobody seemed to understand what was going on or what would happen next—not the journalists I would speak to in the newsroom everyday, not the other business leaders and certainly not the political leaders.

We all grow up amidst power structures. We have parents who make the rules at home, teachers and administrators who do so at school. When we enter adulthood and begin to work for a living, we have managers and customers to attend to. Political leaders call the shots in public life. Everywhere we go, there is some authority guiding us.

But in the Orange Revolution nobody seemed to be directing the action. There was just a mysterious force, which nobody could describe but nobody could deny, that was moving things along. It almost felt like we were all characters in a play, there to play a part but without any real agency over events.

In Martin Heidegger’s essay, The Question Concerning Technology, he described technology as akin to art, in that it reveals truths about the nature of the world, brings them forth and puts them to some specific use. I learned that power is something akin to that, a force that we can shape and direct, but not anything we can actually possess.

2. The Power Of Cascades

One of the first things I discovered on my journey to understand the events during the Orange Revolution of 2004 is that scientists had known for centuries about the mysterious force I encountered on the streets of Kyiv and even had a name for it. It’s called a network cascade or a viral cascade.

Imagine thousands of protesters rushing to flood the streets of Kyiv, or Cairo — or Washington D.C.  Countless fireflies blinking on and off in nearly perfect unison. Sports fans doing the “wave” at a stadium. These are all examples of information cascading through a network and they have the power to create rapid, transformational change.

When ideas are held by individuals or small groups, they are negligible. However, when groups connect and synchronize their collective behavior, they can become immensely powerful. An industry is remade, a country overthrown, entire societies evolve and change, the preceding order is transcended and the world is transformed.

The key to understanding cascades is that they are driven by small groups, loosely connected, but united by a shared purpose. This is true for any network, whether the nodes are people, proteins or computers. To drive transformation, change leaders need to help those groups to connect and inspire them with purpose.

3. You Have To Prepare To Survive Victory From The Start

I still remember the feeling in the winter of 2005. We were triumphant. We had taken to the streets and, seemingly against all odds, we won—or at least we thought we did. But those who opposed our cause, they didn’t just melt away and go home. No, they redoubled their efforts to undermine us and were able to reverse what we had achieved.

Our mistake was that we failed to understand that you can never bet your transformation on any particular person, policy, program or technology. It always needs to be rooted in shared values. That was what we got wrong. The Orange Revolution got its name because orange was the campaign color of the opposition candidate, Viktor Yushchenko. Its purpose was to propel him into office.

Yet once we won and Yushchenko rose to the presidency, we lost our purpose and everyone went home. And it turned out that Yushchenko wasn’t a magician or a god who could make the country’s deep problems disappear. He was just a man, who was fallible, made mistakes and couldn’t achieve all that we wanted. That’s why we failed to survive victory.

When the global financial crisis hit, Ukraine once again descended into crisis and whatever support Yushchenko still had quickly dissipated. Yanukovych, the thuggish candidate backed by Russia, had his image rehabilitated by American campaign consultant Paul Manafort, who ran a polished campaign predicated on re-establishing order. He won in an election international observers deemed to be legitimate.

He was even worse than we had feared and in 2013, the new protests broke out. But this time they got it right. These protests were called Euromaidan because they were about values, specifically European values and as things progressed the events became known as the Revolution of Dignity, because they were fighting for their basic identity and sovereign status.

4. There Is A Limit To How Much Impropriety People Will Accept

When I first arrived in Ukraine it was a cynical place. After 80 years of communism and then 10 more under kleptocratic rule, few thought change was possible. So why worry or complain about things that you couldn’t do anything about anyway? It seemed better to focus on things close to you; your family, your work, your friends.

The Orange Revolution in 2004 changed that. It turned out that there was a limit to what people could accept. It wasn’t so much about policy, capitalism or even democracy, it was about dignity, the most basic yearning for people to be treated as ends in themselves, not means to the ends of a corrupt elite.

The original intention of the Ukrainian people was not to pull away from Russia, which many, if not most, considered a “brother” country, but to pursue a so-called “Finnish model” that would maintain good relations with both Russia and the west. Yet Putin could not bring himself to recognize the Ukrainians’ desire for a separate and distinct identity.

That’s an important lesson for anyone seeking to bring about transformation. When leaders set out to pursue change we must do it in ways that allow others to adopt in ways that reinforce, rather than undermine, their identity. That’s why the second Ukrainian revolution continues even now, because it was about dignity.

Lasting change is always built on common ground.


Greg Satell is Co-Founder of ChangeOS, a transformation & change advisory, an 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 and on LinkedIn.

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Image: Wikipedia Commons



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