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Shifting Paradigms Part 4: Cultural Change & The Way of Truth

Last week I explored the three basic pillars of successful cultural transformations. There is a wide spectrum of what these transformations can look and feel like. However, there is one type of transformational campaign that is especially powerful – one’s that are based completely in truth and the belief of basic goodness.

There is a particular philosophy and practice called Satyagraha - most well-known from Mahatma Gandhi’s successful non-violent resistance campaign for Indian independence. Satyagraha means “insistence on truth” and comes from Sanskrit “satya” = truth, “agraha” = insistence. Basically, this philosophy holds that when leading a cultural or political transformation, your strategy and vision need to be founded upon basic undeniable and universal truths. Every element of the campaign must be squarely rooted in those truths – from the leader, to the tactics, to the underlying assumptions about human nature. Specifically:

1. These truths are higher than any one person. There may be a leader who exemplifies many of the qualities of the movement or who constantly helps supporters more deeply understand how practices and principles strengthen the movement’s ideals. The leader may shine light on those truths and draw connections between those truths (or denial of those truths) and daily life – however, the movement is much bigger than the leader or any individual - and realizing those truths is much bigger than just one movement. It is not enough to simply get your way, but you others must actually understand your way and through that understanding know that the goal is truth.

Applications to corporate cultural change:

  • Get very clear about your organization’s higher purpose (e.g. working through Roy Spence’s “It's Not What You Sell, It's What You Stand For: Why Every Extraordinary Business Is Driven by Purpose”).

  • Make sure that that purpose is based upon universal truths. At Balfour Beatty, our mission is based on four foundational pillars – Zero Harm (every life is sacred), Zero Waste (we need to make the most of every resource and opportunity), Client Advocacy (we must deeply understand the needs and aspirations of our clients), and Employee Inspiration (we want our employees to do what they love and love what they do). These are the basic beliefs that our corporate purpose is based upon.

  • Make the realization of those truths actionable and personal. People must understand how they can embody those principles in every aspect of their life – not just at work – so that they become an integral part of who they are.

2. The truths must be evident in every aspect of the campaign. The means, the tactics, the language, the character of the people - not just the outcome – all need to be based on these universal truths. To found a cultural transformation in truth means that every aspect needs to hold fast to those truths – as opposed to the cut-throat Machiavellian notion of the “ends justifies the means”, satyagraha holds that the means and the ends are one in the same. Gandhi used an example to explain this: “If I want to deprive you of your watch, I shall certainly have to fight for it; if I want to buy your watch, I shall have to pay for it; and if I want a gift, I shall have to plead for it; and, according to the means I employ, the watch is stolen property, my own property, or a donation.” Said another way – the means that we use to achieve our goals actually impacts the quality and integrity of that end goal.

Applications to corporate cultural change:

  • How do we enact change? Within our organizations, we run into the same challenges as Gandhi’s simple watch example: Do we force change on the organization (and risk anger, frustration, or rebellion)? Do we incentivize change somehow (and get cooperation only because there is financial benefit)? Or do we find a way to convince our people that the new way is a better way and get the change to come willingly from them (and create passionately committed advocates)? While all three means might get the same general result, the energy around that result and the level of true buy-in to the goal will be different.

  • Strategy and tactics need to also fully embody the movement’s truths. This can be one of the most challenging aspects of true satyagraha campaigns. With a noble goal, it can be tempting to cut a few corners here and there to achieve something for the greater good – but this will somewhat compromise the goal. For example, becoming a “lean organization” is based on the foundational principles of: 1) deeply understanding “value”, 2) identifying problems or waste immediately and understanding their root causes, and 3) transparency in performance and continuous improvement. In a corporate lean transformation, it may be easy for leadership to mandate certain processes or practices, but ideally every lean transformation strategy should be based in getting the organization to understand value, understand their true performance through transparency, seek out waste, and continuous improvement (rather than dictated policy).

3. The movement is based on a belief in the inherent goodness of human nature and seeks to re-establish and strengthen that inherent goodness. In essence, every person is inherently good, but through their upbringing and life experiences, that basic goodness at their core may have gotten distorted, bent, or skewed in such a way that their actions may look very different than the initial basic goodness. In line with this thinking, resistance to truth always comes from a place of fear and ignorance and one of the goals of a satyagraha campaign is to free people of that fear and ignorance. From this belief in basic goodness, there are several principles that inform satyagraha campaigns:

  • Regarding antagonists – Satyagraha is totally based in non-violence. This includes physical and psychological violence. No actions or words must come from anger, spite, harshness, insult, or disrespect. Satyagraha seeks to eliminate antagonists without harming them. The goal is not to end/destroy the relationships with the antagonists, but rather transform that relationship to some higher/synergistic/complementary form.

  • Regarding laws and rules - Change agents respect and work within the current conventions to make their point. They obey rules voluntarily and ungrudgingly, even when inconvenient. In fact, they often obey rules extraordinarily so that no one can question their integrity and model citizenship. In many cases, their following the rules so exactly often highlights the weakness, hypocrisy, and irony in what these rules impose.

  • Regarding oneself – Satyagrahis must have great modesty and self-sufficiency. Their struggle for change may require them to surrender some material benefits, authoritative responsibilities, and other things that feed the ego – so they will need to find ways to survive and flourish with what they have (rather than compromising their integrity by bending to others that don’t share their higher goals). Self-sufficiency also gives satyagrahis the power to leverage personal and economic strategies such as boycotts and abstinence to demonstrate their potential impact to the larger context. Although they may surrender certain material benefits, they should never compromise their self-respect. So they need to be very stable, balanced, patient, and self-confident to be able to tolerate and suffer the criticism, anger, and frustration of opponents with integrity. They also need to be very disciplined and transparent in all their actions.

Applications to corporate cultural change:

  • Seek to understand everyone’s perspective (especially opponents). A universal truth is universal. The only way to get others to understand your perspective is to back up to the level where there is some common understanding or shared values and build the case for change from there. In order to do this, you must really understand other’s “reality”. Even opponents represent some aspect of reality, so the truths and message need to resonate with them as well

  • The rebel is the model citizen. The key to truth-based transformations is that the advocates for change need to have great integrity because they are representing higher principles. They must know the rules so well that they can convincingly make their points within that context.

  • “Below the line leadership” – As my friend and mentor, John Grinnell, says - the best leaders are not those that have mastered management theory, strategy, etc., but rather those that have mastered themselves. Courses like John’s seek to make leaders so self-aware that they can lead from a place of authenticity and deal with challenges from a place of deep integrity.

Satyagraha campaigns are some of the most meaningful and profound ways to change an organization, culture, or the world. They are the types of movements that inspire greatness at all levels because they are solely dedicated to realizing some higher truth in the world while also empowering individuals to also realize some higher truth in themselves. Whether seeking independence, equality, or freedom of speech – striving for these truths in ways that are non-violent, respectful, and free of personal agenda is the most noble cause to which anyone could dedicate their lives.

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