The wave of democratic change that started in Sidi Bouzid, Tunisia and has since hit the rest of the arab world carries significant lessons not only for autocratic state leaders but also for business leaders.
The Arab dictators are being removed from power because they haven’t been able to foresee and implement an unavoidable and massive change: the democratization of their regime. It will only have taken this single additional act of tyranny in Sidi Bouzid to start an unstoppable process: the change supporters, who had until then stayed passive, suddenly decided to become active, starting a group dynamic, encouraged by the belief that there would now be far more to lose staying silent than taking action. Suddenly the barriers to change don’t seem unremovable anymore; change is at hands. Things can then turn into chaos, such as in Lybia, or into a (relatively) smooth transition if a sufficiently supported leadership or coalition emerges, such as in Egypt or Tunisia.
Business leaders, although some of whom may show signs of autocracy, are luckily far from mad and dangerous dictators. They can even be inspiring and brilliant. Nevertheless, the same rationale is absolutely applicable to a leader who has neither the vision nor the courage to implement unavoidable change. The organization is then in danger of losing touch with its people who suffer from the situation. Until an apparently unimportant event occurs that triggers an uncontrolable chain of events, ultimately bringing a change that would have been much less painful and chaotic, had it been anticipated and prepared in time. What lessons can be drawn? I suggest the following three.
First that no strategy nor modus operandi is sustainable without a critical number of people supporting it. This may seem naive or idealistic to a GM whose unpopular task is to cut costs by 20%. Well the danger is precisely to by-pass the necessary dialog, and I mean not one-way communication but real two-ways conversations, that will help establish clarity, a necessary first step to adhesion.
The second lesson would be: watch out for signs of change, by listening to your stakeholders: clients, employees, local authorities, suppliers, labour unions, ONG’s,… Of course a leader would have to clone himself several times to achieve all that by her/himself; so another solution is to organise this process , make sure to spend selected time on the field and share this state of mind with her/his teams.
Third, there is no limit to the energy created by a group of people who have taken full ownership of a change that touches them individually as well as collectively. Too often change leadership fail because leaders don’t sincerely apply those principles that they are very well aware of: involvement, dialog, empowerment, transparency to name a few.
In a growing number of organizations, leaders are applying these lessons to drive a change that proves to be more and more inevitable: Corporate Social Responsibility.
This post is also available in: French