I believe that Nelson Mandela understood this before his release in 1990. In prison, he insisted that his African National Congress compatriots treat the guards with respect, remain in good physical shape, and keep their haircuts. He knew they would be old when they got out, but that they would have to run the government nonetheless; in his mind, they were already the South African government in exile. The guards started to call him Mr. Mandela and treat him as a significant individual. Because he was already taking the part of a great man while in prison, he and his colleagues were ready to assume the role of leadership when they emerged.
Today I work with people who are trying to institute profound changes within their organizations. Those who succeed understand that the change occurs in its own time. It can’t be hurried by throwing managers at it, any more than you can hurry a baby along by putting more doctors in the maternity ward. You need to do all the things we did in the civil rights movement: to discover the nature of the needed change, to gather the many people who believe in a similar transformation, to let a field of energy evolve, to “contain” that field inside some new formal structures, and to recognize and amplify the leadership that rises to the surface. I saw the same kinds of shifts at the Boston Globe; I believe they take place in all movements of change, including such diverse groups as the American conservatives after the defeat of Barry Goldwater and the Eastern European dissidents before the fall of the Berlin Wall. It’s not just the structures that have to change. And it’s not just the culture out there in the organization. It’s the culture in here, in ourselves, as well — the culture that leads us up to the threshold, and then, if we’re ready, gives us the courage to step across.
Reprint No. 05403
Leslie F. (“Skip”) Griffin Jr. (firstname.lastname@example.org) is an educator and a consultant and coach with Dialogos Inc., a leadership-oriented firm based in Cambridge, Mass. He has also been the director of community relations for the Boston Globe. For more on the change theory described here, visit www.dialogos.com/fll#spiral.