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If You’re Serious About Change, You Need To Be Explicit And Focus On Shared Values

2024 March 10

When Lou Gerstner was chosen to lead IBM in 1993, he was an unlikely revolutionary. A McKinsey consultant and then the successful CEO of RJR Nabisco, he was considered to be a pillar of the establishment. He would, however, turn out to be as subversive as any activist, transforming the company and saving it from near-death.

Yet there was more to what he achieved than simply turning red ink to black. “The Gerstner revolution wasn’t about technology or strategy, it was about transforming our values and our culture to be in greater harmony with the market,” Irving Wladawsky-Berger, one of his chief lieutenants, told me.

Values are essential to culture and how an enterprise honors its mission. They represent choices of what an organization will and will not do, what it rewards and what it punishes and how it defines success and failure. That’s why it’s important to make sure that you are explicit about you values, even before you define your strategy. If not, you will pay the price later.

The Power Of The Freedom Charter

In June 1955, the Congress of The People, a gathering that included blacks, mixed race, Indians and liberal whites convened to draft and adopt the Freedom Charter, much like the Continental Congress gathered to produce the Declaration of Independence in America. The idea was to come up with a common and inclusive vision.

The Freedom Charter was anything but moderate, however. It was a “revolutionary document precisely because the changes it envisioned could not be achieved without radically altering the economic and political structure of South Africa… In South Africa, to merely achieve fairness, one had to destroy apartheid itself, for it was the very embodiment of injustice,” Nelson Mandela would later write.

Yet despite its radical aims, the Freedom Charter spoke to common values, such as equal rights and equal protection under the law—not just among the signatories, but for anyone living in a free society. It didn’t seem so at the time—and the struggle would go on for decades—but the Freedom Charter ended up being the first major blow to Apartheid.

Nelson Mandela would later say that the Freedom Charter would have been very different if his organization, the African National Congress (ANC) had written it by themselves, but it wouldn’t have been nearly as powerful. It not only gave anti-Apartheid groups a basis for collective action, by being explicit values, it formed a foundation for those outside of South Africa, who shared the same values, to share the anti-Apartheid purpose.

Perhaps most importantly, the Freedom Charter imposed costs and constraints on the anti-Apartheid movement. By committing itself to a multi-racial movement the African National Congress lost some freedom of action. However, constraining itself in that way was in itself a powerful argument for the viability of a multi-racial society in South Africa.

The Weakness Of The Hamas Charter

Throughout Mandela’s career, he was accused of being an extremist, a communist, and an anarchist, among other things. He would always point to the Freedom Charter as proof of his core beliefs. When emissaries of the de Klerk regime began visiting him in prison to discuss the end of Apartheid, his commitment to those core values carried significant weight.

Something very different happened after the October 7th attacks perpetrated by Hamas in Israel. Those sympathetic with the plight of the Palestinians defended the action as the justifiable actions of a long-oppressed people rising up against their oppressors. Many, especially on elite college campuses, marched in support of the Palestinians.

Yet when people went to the Hamas Covenant to see the values they were fighting for, they found something very different than the Freedom Charter in South Africa. Rather than universal principles everyone can identify with, it is filled with extreme religious views that only speak to Islamists and hate-filled calls for violence and murder.

For example, take a look at this little gem from the Seventh Article of the document:

“The Day of Judgement will not come about until Moslems fight the Jews (killing the Jews), when the Jew will hide behind stones and trees. The stones and trees will say O Moslems, O Abdulla, there is a Jew behind me, come and kill him. Only the Gharkad tree, (evidently a certain kind of tree) would not do that because it is one of the trees of the Jews.”

It’s hard to be sympathetic with those are not only condoning, but calling for violence, which is why even sympathetic Israelis point to the Hamas Covenant as justification for military action. Of course, that doesn’t change the fact that the vast majority of Palestinians living in Gaza are innocent, but it does bolster the point that Israel has a need to defend itself.

Clearly, if your opposition is using your own words to strengthen their argument, you’ve not taken a viable approach.

Values As A Weapon As Well As A Shield

Once you are explicit about your values you will inevitably find that not everyone shares them and that was certainly true of the Gerstner turnaround at IBM. For example, Wladawsky-Berger told me that “IBM had always valued competitiveness, but we had started to compete with each other internally rather than working together to beat the competition. Lou put a stop to that and even let go of some senior executives who were known for infighting.”

A simple truth is that whenever we set out to make a significant impact, there will always be those who will work to undermine what we are trying to achieve in ways that are dishonest, underhanded and deceptive. Yet when that happens we need to be careful not to get sucked into direct conflict, which will surely take us off course and discredit what we’re trying to achieve. Instead, we need to learn to design dilemmas.

Dilemma actions have been used for at least a century—famous examples include Gandhi’s Salt March, King’s Birmingham Campaign and Alice Paul’s Silent Sentinels—but more recently codified by the global activist, Srdja Popović. They are just as effective in an organizational context, using an opponent’s resistance against them.

One of the great things about dilemma actions is that you approach them exactly the same way you approach building allies—by identifying a shared purpose. Once you do that, you can design a constructive act rooted in that shared purpose that advances your agenda. That forces your opponent to make a choice: they can  either disrupt the act and violate the shared value or they can let it go forward and allow change to proceed.

For example, I was once running a transformation project that was being impeded by a Sales Director hogging accounts. Although it was agreed that she would distribute her clients, she never got around to it. So I set up a meeting with a key account and one of our salespeople. When she tried to disrupt the meeting, she violated the shared value we had established and was dismissed from her position. Everything fell into place after that.

Building The Discipline Of Shared Values

John Lennon wrote that life is what happens when you’re planning other things and truer words were never spoken. We live life in the moment and moments are dictated by events. That’s why so many change efforts fail, because they do what feels good, choosing to signal identity rather than leverage shared values.

Never underestimate the primordial need to signal identity. We want to show that we are not only a full-fledged member of our tribe, but a star player on the team. That’s why we engage in the type of moral outbidding that results in a purity spiral. Before you know it, we are voicing opinions and taking actions that are not only out of the mainstream, but that actually turn away those who might support our objectives.

That’s why #Occupy protesters slept in parks and shouted obscenities, why women wore pussy hats after the election of Donald Trump, why DEI activists claim that anyone who doesn’t agree with them is racist, why a Cornell professor said he was exhilarated by the murder of innocents, and why America’s far-right activists identify with murderous dictators. It feels good to show that we are different, that we have status.

Yet while these efforts may make their point, they fail to make a difference. #Occupy protesters soon went home and achieved nothing. The World Economic Forum has found that #MeToo has undermined women in the workplace. DEI programs across the country are being crushed, Hamas has lost legitimacy, even with Palestinians and hundreds of January 6th insurrectionists have gone to jail.

The challenge and discipline for leading change is to focus on shared values, so even people who don’t agree with you can identify with your motives. The truth is that success doesn’t depend on how radical or how moderate your vision, but how well you can appeal to common goals. Or, as Nelson Mandela himself put it, “to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.”

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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