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Change Is Never Simple Or Linear—You Need To Tap Into Networks And Ecosystems

2023 March 19
by Greg Satell

I still remember the excitement I felt seeing Kyiv, Ukraine for the first time in 2002. I had been living in Eastern Europe for five years by that time and had the privilege of witnessing first-hand how formerly communist countries moved boldly into a new future of peace and prosperity. Still, Kyiv was different somehow, bigger, more raw and bursting with potential.

An often repeated quip at the time was, “Ukraine is like Poland in 1993… and always will be.” Unlike the Visegrad countries of Poland, Czech, Slovakia and Hungary, Ukraine had been an actual Soviet Republic and the degree of institutional and societal rot created greater challenges. Kyiv in 2002 was, in many ways, a cynical place.

Today, no one can deny that a paradigm shift has occurred. No longer seen as a corrupt backwater, Ukraine has inspired the world with its ingenuity, humanity and courage. Its president, Volodomyr Zelensky, is an international hero. Yet the transformation, while still incomplete, didn’t come easily and it has important lessons that we can learn from.

A Material Desire

In the early 2000s, Ukraine felt like a place in limbo. Ravaged by the 1998 ruble crisis and often considered to be a sub-market of Russia, most multinational companies were running their Ukrainian operations from Moscow. The highly publicized murder of journalist Georgiy Gongadze in 2000 just added to the feeling that the country was stuck in a hopeless limbo.

When I first arrived, there was a palpable sense of political apathy. Many Ukrainians traveled to Europe and, with its neighbor Poland ascending to the EU, were more than aware that they were being left behind. Still, it didn’t seem like anything could be done about the corrupt powers that ruled the country, so why worry about things that didn’t concern you?

That began to change in 2004, when a relatively boring technocratic reformer named Viktor Yushchenko, who was credited with taming hyperinflation as a central banker and helping to improve the economy as Prime Minister, emerged as the opposition candidate for President. Powerful interests opposed his reforms. He was poisoned, leaving his face disfigured. Many expected his candidacy to end there, but it transformed him into an inspirational leader.

The forces backing his opponent, an almost cartoonish thug named Viktor Yanukovych, tried to falsify the election, which led to the Orange Revolution. I remember that, at first, the effort often seemed futile. But we persevered and the Supreme Court of Ukraine nullified the falsified election results. Against seemingly all odds, Yushchenko rose to the presidency.

A Failure To Survive Victory

We had won, or so we thought. The rightful candidate was elected, justice was done and it seemed like a new era had dawned. Yet soon it became clear that things were not going well. The unity of Yushchenko’s coalition broke down and infighting ensued. Planned reforms stalled in a morass of corruption and incompetence. The financial crisis at the end of 2008 put the last nail in the coffin.

In 2010, Victor Yanukovych, the same man we marched against, rose to the presidency. He was even worse than we had feared. He changed the Constitution to grab more power and threw his opponent, Yulia Tymoshenko, in jail to cripple the opposition. Corruption reached new heights (experts estimate that the regime looted as much as $100 billion—an amount almost equal to the entire GDP of Ukraine).

Things came to a head when Yanukovych backed out of a trade agreement with the EU. It was the final straw. It is one thing to steal, to make a mockery of the rule of law and to run the country far below any reasonable standard of governance. But the prospect of EU integration had come to symbolize inclusion into Europe and a chance to, someday, live a normal life. People once again took to the streets in what came to be called the Euromaidan protests.

The regime fought back, but to little avail. Riot police attacked, yet more people came to Kyiv’s central square, known as the “Maidan.” Yanukovych passed a law outlawing the protests and even more came. Things escalated and the regime started shooting the protestors. Soon there were Molotov cocktails, helmets, and improvised shields. In the end more than 100 people were dead in the streets.

The world took notice and the diplomats came. Meanwhile, away from the cameras, other meetings were held in Parliament. The oligarchs, facing sanctions against their western assets, and even Yanukovych’s allies in his own party, had enough. Suddenly bereft of any support, the corrupt strongman fled from the country. An interim government was announced and Petro Poroshenko was elected president later that Spring.

The Rise Of A Consciousness Based On Shared Values

The Orange Revolution got its name because Orange was the campaign color of Yushchenko’s party, Our Ukraine. It was about changing who was in power in the hopes that he could change things. That was our mistake. You can never base a transformation in any one person, policy or program. It always needs to be rooted in shared values.

“In 2015 we were fighting for an idea. That’s why 2015 was different,” Mustafa Nayem, who initiated the protests, would later tell me. They were called “Euromaidan,” because they were about values, specifically European Values. It was a realization that the material aspirations could not be met without a fundamental change in beliefs and how the country saw itself.

“Immediately after Maidan [in 2005], all the people went home and they calmed down,” Nayem told me. “We lost the chance to push the government towards some changes. In 2013, and after Maidan in 2014, many people are still angry, they’re still active, they’re still pushing. And the inner process of these protests is still proceeding. We have this conversion of civil society.”

These events came to be known as the Revolution of Dignity, because it was the moment that the Ukrainian people demanded to have their sovereignty as an independent country recognized, no matter what the cost. That’s what led Putin to annex Crimea, invade Donbas in 2014 and then the entire country in 2022.

To Shift Opinions You Need To Shift Networks

From the outside, Ukraine’s story can seem like a real life version of the hero’s journey, in which an ordinary person is called to greatness and tested in some profound way which leads to a transformation. Yet Volodymyr Zelensky is not Luke Skywalker, Vladimir Putin is not Darth Vader and Russia does not dominate the universe.

While it is true that Zelensky has a particular set of talents that earlier leaders, such as Viktor Yushchenko, lacked, he has been shaped by context at least as much as he has shaped events. Not only is he a member of the first Ukrainian generation to have little memory or nostalgia for the Soviet Union, he is operating in an ecosystem prepared by two revolutions.

To truly shape events, you must shape networks. That is why Russia is failing and Ukraine is succeeding. One thing I noticed living in both countries is that Ukrainians had a deep desire to connect to the world, while Russians were much more suspicious, fearing that taking in elements of other cultures would corrupt their own.

It is networks of unseen connections that lead to transformation and change. You can’t overpower, you need to attract small groups, loosely connected and united by shared purpose to achieve great things. That never happens in a straightforward manner. We live in a world not of linear cause and effect, but of complex ecosystems, which we need to grow and nurture if they are to achieve their full potential.


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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Images: Wikimedia Commons

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