We’re Going To Change You. You’ll Like It.
The only way to change the world is to be the change we wish to see. An iconic quote often attributed to the legendary Mahatma Gandhi, his 1913 public work offers a more nuanced version:
“We but mirror the world. All the tendencies present in the outer world are to be found in the world of our body. If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him. This is the divine mystery supreme. A wonderful thing it is and the source of our happiness. We need not wait to see what others do.”
– Gandhi cited in: The Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi, Volume XII, April 1913 to December 1914, 1964
Once, during a tour of Bengal, Gandhi happened to be the guest of a powerful Zamindar in a palatial mansion, with servants running hither and thither at their master’s commands. Hosting evening prayers one night, hundreds of attendees squashed themselves into the space to listen to Gandhi. It was his custom to have the lights switched off before prayers, and he whispered, “Lights off, please.”
The switch happened to be just above the Zamindar’s head, but as usual he roared for a servant to attend to the request. Quick as a flash, and to the Zamindar’ s surprise, Gandhi jumped up and switched them off himself.
Prayers ended and Gandhi was plied with questions. One question evoked a response from him dealing with the disinclination of the wealthy and educated to perform manual labour. Gandhi referred to specific teaching from the Gita that he who ate his food without labouring for it was a thief. As Gandhi spoke, he had no doubt that his teaching may provoke the powerful Zamindar.
As the crowd dispersed, a small table with a vase was knocked o ver. Quick as a flash the Zamindar jumped to clean it up.
Gandhi epitomised what he believed about the world – about what it could be. The Zamindar transformed himself into the change Gandhi embodied; because Gandhi himself provided the reference point; he was the change.
Gandhi exemplified the premise of servant leadership: that a leader’s purpose is to serve others. The core of his ideology was not just spreading a message but being the message. He liberated India. He was the peace. He was the example and living embodiment that proved the viability, value, and necessity of the change. He gave it credence, paving the way for others to believe and do. Gandhi knew that leadership mattered disproportionately and that where leaders were prepared to go, people would follow.
As a performance agency, we are intrigued to the point of fascination with stories of change and in this instance the change in India, Gandhi’s ability to create a vastly different context against the prevailing paradigm, and the disproportionate degree to which his leadership drove the change. Why does leadership matter? What are the mechanics at play? What was it about the environment that moved Gandhi so greatly? What kind of environment did Gandhi seek to create to move others?
And what might be the implications if we applied what we’d discovered to a business context?
While business today may claim it’s changing, the degree to which this is true is relative. We still find the prevailing sentiment of business referenced in the hangover term “human resources”; a relic of the industrial revolution and the management paradigm of control, comply, contract, and constrain. Instead of liberated, bright, and thriving minds, business continues to recreate the 18th century factory floor inside itself. Today, organisations grumble about their indolent, lethargic workforces that lack initiative, drive, and vision. They describe their people as lazy, uncreative, uncooperative, and unchanging. Their collective cry has become a modern-day holy grail … how do we get our people to do more with less … how do we get them to be the change we need to see to remain relevant!?
But this is the wrong question. People don’t change fundamentally without some kind of trauma or crisis. If we’re looking to get the best contributions from our people, it’s much less about changing them, and a lot more about changing the context (environment) that business and senior leaders create around the people. That is, the current paradigm in which companies operate not only prevents them from asking the right question but also means that the actual problem remains unrecognised and unsolved.
Today, management-generated strategy is cascaded down through organisations, via levels and tiers that dictate what I can and can’t do. I am trained on products, solutions, and customer segments, what Sumantra Ghoshal calls “a box of constraint”. Companies create an elaborate infrastructure of planning, budgeting, financial, and management systems, all of which demand compliance. Both constraint and compliance are controlled by managers and this control finds its locus and definition in contract: I am hired on a job contract, my working relationship is a contract, my performance is a contract.
Everything has been designed to constrain, ensure compliance, control, and contract; this is the context business creates as the prevailing culture. If this is how I operate, live, and exist, how can I take initiative and proactively create change and transformation? How do today’s management teams believe they are going to elicit change in their organisations from this paradigm? In much the same way that Gandhi provided an alternative – a LeaderSHIFT – we believe that today’s organisations – through a LeaderSHIFT – can and will change people and business performance. But it cannot be done through the prism of today’s management practices.
Over the past two decades we have been privileged enough to have worked with outliers in the market; companies that have created an environment of stretch, discipline, trust, and support. Top management in these companies has created an exciting set of core beliefs around an aggressive ambition, both of which create a certain smell. It is the smell of stretch. This is stretching the sense that every individual, all the time, is trying to do better rather than simply survive; do more rather than less, and do it because they want to, not because they have to. Discipline replaces compliance, and self-discipline becomes the de facto way of work. Self-discipline means that – almost naturally it seems – targets are met, people are on time, and even when there’s disagreement, debate, or argument, the decision taken is respected and committed to.
Instead of control, support is offered. Management exists to help, coach, and guide. As a leader, Gandhi particularly embodies this idea of support – of service. Support engenders trust and is built over time by leaders. Instead of contracting, you are trusted to deliver, innovate, and build relationships and the business. Business today must be different so that it can smell different. The most commonly asked question is … is it possible!?
In the research piece led by Gushal and in our own experience over the past two decades, two things have become clear. Firstly, it is possible to create a different smell in a company and sustain it beyond the legacy of a single leader or legacy leadership team. The second is that fora company that currently smells like the former – control, comply, constrain, and contract – it is possible to transform that smell into one of stretch, discipline, support, and trust, but only with a determined and committed leadership that is prepared to SHIFT.
We’ve done it with South Africa’s biggest retailer… with the country’s number one telco service provider, with South Africa’s biggest financial services provider, and well, the list goes on!
As performance agents, we remain fascinated by the massive changes our clients have experienced, devoted to creating vastly different business contexts against the prevailing paradigm, and convinced of the disproportionate role leadership plays in change. Leadership matters. Context matters. How people feel matters!
What might be the implications if we applied what we’ve discovered in your business context? If you believe your organisational performance and the people who work with and for you can be liberated, changed, better, and you’re courageous enough, give us a call.
We’re going to change you. You’ll like it.
This insight was inspired by the late Prof. Sumantra Ghoshal and his address to the 1995 World Economic Summit in Davos.