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Adopting A Changemaker Mindset

2022 March 20
by Greg Satell

Every time I speak to a group of executives, they complain that their organizations desperately need to change, but that the bosses are hostile to it. And every time I speak to a group of leaders, they say that change is their highest priority, but can’t seem to align the rank-and-file behind transformational initiatives.

The truth is that everybody loves their own brand of change, it’s other people’s ideas and initiatives that they don’t like. We all have things that we want to be different. But the status quo has inertia on its side and never yields its power gracefully. To want change is one thing, but to change ourselves, well… that’s another story.

What I’ve found in both my research and my practice is that people who bring about transformational, even historic, change start out no differently than anyone else. In fact, early versions of them are often decidedly unimpressive. The difference between them and everyone else is that somewhere along the way they learn to adopt a changemaker mindset.

A Problem They Couldn’t Look Away From

As a young man, Mohandis Gandhi wasn’t the type of person anyone 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. He found his voice, built the almost superhuman discipline he became famous for and successfully campaigned for the rights of Indians in South Africa. He returned to India 21 years later as the “Mahatma,” or “holy man.”

The truth is that revolutions don’t begin with a slogan, they begin with a cause. Martin Luther King Jr., as eloquent as he was, didn’t start with words. It was his personal experiences with racism that helped him find his words. It was his devotion to the cause that gave those words meaning, not the other way around.

Steve Jobs didn’t look for ideas, he looked for products that sucked. Computers sucked. Music players sucked. Mobile phones sucked. His passion was to make them “insanely great.” Every breakthrough product or invention, a laser printer, a quantum computer or even a life-saving cure like cancer immunotherapy, always starts out with a problem someone couldn’t look away from.

Identifying A Keystone Change

Every change effort, if it is to be successful, needs to identify a Keystone Change to bridge the gap between the initial grievance about the world as it is and the vision for how the world could be. You can’t get there in a single step. This is a lesson that even a legendary changemaker like Gandhi had to learn the hard way.

In 1919, five years after his return to India, Gandhi called for a nationwide series of strikes and boycotts in response to the Rowlatt Acts, which restricted Indian rights. 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.

A decade later, when the Indian National Congress asked Gandhi to design a campaign of civil disobedience in support of independence, he proceeded more cautiously. Rather than rashly calling for national action, he set out with 70 or 80 of his closest disciples to protest unjust salt laws. Their nonviolent discipline inspired the nation and the world.

Today, the Salt March is known as Gandhi’s greatest triumph. It was the first time that the British was forced to negotiate with the Indians and, because it demonstrated that the Raj could be defied, helped lead to Indian independence in 1947. Yet without that earlier failure, which Gandhi would call his Himalayan miscalculation, it would not have been possible.

Gandhi is, of course, a legendary historical figure. But other, more pedestrian, changemakers learned the same thing. A lean manufacturing transformation at Wyeth Pharmaceutical started with a single change with a single team, but quickly spread to 17,000 employees. A healthcare revolution began with just six quality practices. When the CIO of Experian set out to move his organization to the cloud, he began with internal API’s and just a few teams.

To make change real, you need to get out of the business of selling an idea and into the business of selling a success. You do that with a Keystone Change.

Empowering A Movement

We revere legendary change leaders like Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr, Nelson Mandela and others not just for their ideas, but because of how they empowered others to take ownership of their cause. Those who followed them did so not in their names, but for themselves. The struggle was collective, not one of subservience.

That’s what makes building a movement different from traditional change models they often teach in business schools. A snazzy internal communication program and a training regimen may help  an organization adopt new software or gear up to support a new product line, but it won’t change how people fundamentally think or act.

Movement leaders focus on empowerment, not persuasion. Gandhi didn’t need to convince his countrymen about the daily humiliations and injustices suffered under the British Raj. King did not have to explain to black Americans that racism was wrong. Mandela did not have to persuade black South Africans about the evils of Apartheid. They empowered them to make a difference. That’s what makes movements so compelling and effective.

Changemakers of all kinds can do the same. At Experian, the CIO set up an “API Center of Excellence” to help product managers who wanted to build out cloud-based features. To power the quality movement in healthcare, activists created “change kits” to guide hospital staff who were on board and wanted to bring their colleagues along. Change can only succeed if you equip those who believe in it to drive it forward.

Building Empathy, Even For Your Enemies

People who believe in change want to believe that if everyone understood it, they’d want it to happen. That’s why “change management” gurus focus on communication and persuasion. They think that if you explain your idea for change in just the right way, others will see the light. For many change consultants, transformation is primarily a messaging problem.

Yet anyone who has ever been married or had kids knows how hard it can be to convince even a single person of something. Persuading hundreds, if not thousands—or even an entire society—that they should drop what they’re thinking and doing to adopt your idea and help drive it forward is a tall order. The simple truth is that no one is really that charming.

Make no mistake. If your idea is important, if it has real potential to affect how people think and how they act, there will always be those who will hate it and they will work to undermine it in ways that are dishonest, underhanded and deceptive. That’s just a simple fact of life that every potential changemaker needs to learn to internalize and accept.

Yet adopting a changemaker mindset means that you understand that change is always built on common ground and that you need to build empathy, even for your most ardent adversaries, because that is how you identify shared values and move things forward. It is by listening to your opposition and internalizing its logic that you can learn how to discredit it, or even better, inspire those hostile to change to discredit themselves.

That is the changemaker mindset: To understand that change is hard, even unlikely, but to remain clear-eyed, hard-nosed and opportunity focused. To know that through shared values and shared purpose, radical, transformational change is not only possible, but ultimately inevitable.


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

Need to overcome resistance to change? Sign up for the Adopting A Changemaker Mindset Course today!

Photo by Miguel Bruna on Unsplash


3 Responses leave one →
  1. March 24, 2022

    I have often found that people of widely differing viewpoints may often have one subject on which they both agree. That agreement may be for diametrically opposed reasons; but it is agreement nonetheless, and so can be built upon. Sometimes it’s something trivial; sometimes it’s something wildly divergent from the core issue. But it’s there, if you can only find it. “Know your enemy” is an old slogan, but it has a kernel of truth.

  2. March 24, 2022

    Great point! Thanks Robert.

    – Greg

  3. April 26, 2022

    Hello Greg,

    Congratulations to this great work I qualify as a revolutionary trends of change Makers. I believe that the mindset is a powerful ability of change and meeting people mindful set like you is the power which leads to change that can transform this world and make history for the better world.


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