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Published: November 29, 2005

 
 

Beauty Parlors, Barbershops, and Boardrooms

What leaders of corporate change can learn from the American civil rights movement.

Illustration by Lars Leetaru
For the past few years, I’ve made a good part of my living helping companies and organizations through sustained change and transformation. I fell into this profession when a friend invited me to sit in on a meeting with a group of experts on dialogue. I walked in late, and one of the leaders, a writer and Massachusetts Institute of Technology instructor named Bill Isaacs, was standing at a flip chart, diagramming a new theory of in-depth change in corporations.

“Where did you get this from?” I asked. It was like seeing the events of my life laid out on a spiral path. I had grown up in the middle of one of the most significant change initiatives in modern history: the American civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. My father, the Reverend L. Francis Griffin Sr., was a preacher in a Baptist church in Prince Edward County, Va., during those years. He organized some of the students who were plaintiffs in the famous Brown v. Board of Education case, in which the U.S. Supreme Court declared that “separate but equal” segregated schools were unconstitutional. (The case, officially called Oliver L. Brown et al. v. the Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, et al., merged five separate cases from four states; my father’s case, Davis et al. v. County School Board of Prince Edward County, Virginia, et al., was one of these.) Our house was a hub of activity, and from a very early age I had a ringside seat to the movement’s evolution.

Many people think of the civil rights movement as a wave of change sparked by a few charismatic leaders. On December 1, 1955, or so the story goes, a woman named Rosa Parks was riding a segregated bus in Montgomery, Ala. Her feet were tired and she refused to give up her seat and move to the back. She was arrested. People got angry and called a rally, and the community leaders selected a young minister named Martin Luther King Jr. to speak. He led a boycott that lasted more than a year, ending segregation in the Montgomery bus system. That success propelled him to national fame as the leader of a movement that eventually broke down the political barriers to racial equality.

All of those things certainly happened, but they don’t add up to anything close to the whole story. The movement was neither accidental nor spontaneous. During the late 1940s and early 1950s, there was already a deliberate effort under way, starting with quiet meetings in homes, barbershops, beauty parlors, and churches throughout the South, to create a dialogue about the changes that were needed. This was the start of the movement. I’ve since realized that all organizations that sustain a significant transformation undergo the same sort of evolution. If you want to know how a change really came about, be it the civil rights movement or a corporate transformation, you have to understand the parts that are less visible: the deep, profound patterns of activity under the surface.

Gathering and Discovery
My father, like many black men, had served in World War II. Most of them had originally been sent to Europe to take care of the kitchens and dig trenches. In the heat of the war, they were called to fight alongside white soldiers, equally valued and valuable. This was a source of great pride. But it subsequently produced a backlash back home, where many Southern whites were not ready to welcome returning black servicemen as equals. When they got home, some black soldiers were lynched in their uniforms. “We fought for the country to save democracy,” my father and his counterparts decided, “and we’re going to have it here.” They didn’t know how to make this happen, but they were suddenly compelled to figure it out.

 
 
 
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