Lead through Major Change

Insights from 1768-1968

Thoughts on Excellence Free E-Newsletter Series
Volume 12, Issue No. 7
October, 2013

By Dan Coughlin



(Author’s note: This article is based on a major year-long research project on leading through major change. Consequently, it is longer than my normally long articles.)

Last year I realized that in almost every client organization I was working with across multiple industries there were people who were talking about dealing with major change. A temporary change is where you deal with the change and then you go back to the old way of doing things. A major change is where you deal with the change and then on the other side of that change some things are significantly different.

In order to better understand how to lead effectively through a period of major change I decided to study leaders during periods of major change in history and look to see what they did and did not have in common. I selected the time frame of 1768 – 1968. The specific major changes within that 200-year slice of history I examined were the American Revolution, the U.S. Civil War, the Native American Indians’ struggle to retain their freedom, the Women’s Suffrage Movement in the U.S., World War II, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and the Civil Rights Movement in the U.S.

The books I read in researching major change were:

Last year I realized that in almost every client organization I was working with across multiple industries there were people who were talking about dealing with major change. A temporary change is where you deal with the change and then you go back to the old way of doing things. A major change is where you deal with the change and then on the other side of that change some things are significantly different.

In order to better understand how to lead effectively through a period of major change I decided to study leaders during periods of major change in history and look to see what they did and did not have in common. I selected the time frame of 1768 – 1968. The specific major changes within that 200-year slice of history I examined were the American Revolution, the U.S. Civil War, the Native American Indians’ struggle to retain their freedom, the Women’s Suffrage Movement in the U.S., World War II, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and the Civil Rights Movement in the U.S.

The books I read in researching major change were:

  • Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power by Jon Meacham
  • Lincoln: The Biography of a Writer by Fred Kaplan
  • Chief Joseph: Guardian of the People by Candy Moulton
  • The Journey of Crazy Horse: a Lakota history by Joseph Marshall
  • Century of Struggle: Women’s Rights Movement in the United States by Eleanor Flexnor
  • Churchill: The Power of Words by Martin Gilbert
  • One Minute to Midnight: Kennedy, Khrushchev, and Castro on the Brink of Nuclear War by Michael Dobbs
  • The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr. edited by Clayborne Carson

After reading these books I identified the following lessons on leading through major change.

Gender, Race, Age, Formal Education, Personality Type, Wealth, and Leadership Approach are Not Key Factors

From these moments in history you will find great leaders who were male and female, Caucasian, African-American, Native American, and English. Thomas Jefferson, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Winston Churchill, John Kennedy, and Martin Luther King, Jr. were all very well educated. Abraham Lincoln, Chief Joseph, and Crazy Horse had received very little formal education. Kennedy was very wealthy and Lincoln was remarkably poor. Jefferson did inherit a great deal of wealth, but in the end he owed everything he had to his creditors when he died. Stanton was raised in and married into very wealthy families. Kennedy and Churchill were very formal in their approach to guests while Jefferson often greeted dinner guests at the White House in his old slippers and Lincoln maintained a remarkably informal approach with almost everyone.

My research supported my earlier comment that leadership is not a label. I still have never found a label that guaranteed a person was going to be an effective or ineffective leader.

People Saw the Change Coming Long Before It Happened

By 1768 it had become clear that the British Empire and the American colonies were not going to peacefully coexist for the long term. On January 10, 1776 Thomas Paine’s book, Common Sense, was published, which accelerated the belief that the Americans needed to separate themselves from Great Britain. This was almost exactly six months before Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence. Discussions on women’s rights to education, property ownership, and voting began more than 40 years before the first Women’s Rights

Convention in Seneca Falls, New York in 1848.There was talk of a civil war happening over the issue of slavery fully 20 years before it occurred. The U.S. federal government had talked about the “Indian Problem” more than 25 years before the climactic battles in 1876-1877 between the U.S. military and the Nez Perce and Lakota Indians. Anger over a lack of civil rights for African-Americans had been brewing for nearly a century before Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a bus in 1955. By the 1950s it was said that the nuclear buildup in Russia and in the U.S. could lead to a thermonuclear war, which is nearly what happened in October 1962.

By seeing a major change developing, you can better prepare your organization to successfully transverse the new terrain when it arrives. Here are two well-known examples. In the 1950s, Americans had more televisions, more leisure time, and more expendable income than at any previous time in history. By seeing these major changes early in their evolution, Walt Disney created two very successful television programs and a theme park and Ray Kroc began to build McDonald’s restaurants in communities across the U.S.

What major change do a lot of people in your organization know is coming and what can you do to prepare your organization to leverage that major change into a better future?

The Leader Declared When the Critical Moment Had Arrived that Changed History

When it became clear that THE moment had arrived, Jefferson created his famous document, Elizabeth Cady Stanton wrote and published the Declaration of Principles that established the formal beginning of the movement for women’s rights, Lincoln wrote the Emancipation Proclamation at the height of the Civil War, Kennedy announced a naval blockade of Cuba the day he found out the Russians had nuclear weapons on the island of Cuba, Martin Luther King, Jr. crystallized the purpose of the Civil Rights Movement with his “I have a dream” speech in 1963, and Winston Churchill made the following statement on the third day of World War II, September 3, 1939:

“We must not underrate the gravity of the task which lies before us or the temerity of the ordeal, to which we shall not be found unequal. We must expect many disappointments, and many unpleasant surprises, but we may be sure that the task which we have freely accepted is one not beyond our compass and our strength.”

Think about the major change you and the members of your organization face right now. Then reread that statement and apply it to your situation. Don’t underrate the gravity of the task that lies before you, your organization will not be found unequal, and the task is not beyond your compass or your strength. Those are reassuring words that clarify your capacity for dealing with this moment.

When a leader declares the critical moment that changes history has arrived, it allows people to finally confront the major change and deal with it. Until that moment happens, people can see the change coming, but they don’t do anything about it. By delaying action, things don’t get better. They get worse.

Is it time for you to declare the moment that changes the history of your business has arrived? If it is, then it’s your responsibility to declare this is that moment so people in your organization will start to truly confront this major change. If you hesitate, you can make things a lot worse for your organization over the long term, and you might even cause your organization to collapse. If you decide you are really dealing with a major change and not just a temporary change, you hold the future of your organization in your hands. Step up and lead.

Know Your Words Matter, A Lot

When you are dealing with a major change, your words matter a tremendous amount because now people are listening more attentively than ever before.

In August 1963 before 250,000 people, Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of ‘Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.’ It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as her citizens of color are concerned… There will be neither rest nor tranquility in America until the Negro is granted his citizenship rights.” Those were words that stirred Americans into realizing they were all dealing with a period of major change, and people took extraordinary action to create the necessary changes.

On July 19, 1848, a frustrated housewife named Elizabeth Cady Stanton stood up to speak at the first ever Women’s Rights Convention in the United States, which she had organized and attracted 250 women and 50 men to attend, and said, “I should feel exceedingly diffident to appear before you at this time, having never before spoken in public, were I not nerved by a sense of right and duty, did I not feel that the time had come for the question of woman’s wrongs to be laid before the public, did I not believe that woman herself must do this work; for woman alone can understand the height, the depth, the length and the breadth of her degradation.”

At the time Stanton gave this speech women in the U.S. could not own property, had to give any money they earned to their husband, had to give their children to their husband in the event of a divorce, and could not change these rules on their own because they were not allowed to vote. Her speech began the long organized battle for women’s voting rights in the United States that did not occur until August 1920.

On May 13, 1940 when it was obvious that Germany was trying to annihilate Great Britain, in his first speech as Prime Minister, Winston Churchill said, “We have before us an ordeal of the most grievous kind. We have before us many, many long months of struggle and of suffering. You ask, what is our policy? I will say: it is to wage war, by sea, land and air, with all our might and with all the strength that God can give us; to wage war against a monstrous tyranny, never surpassed in the dark and lamentable catalogue of human crime. You ask, what is our aim? I can answer in one word: it is victory, victory at all costs, victory in spite of all terror, victory, however long and hard the road may be; for without victory, there is no survival.”

These words stirred people’s minds and hearts across Great Britain to give everything they had to succeed.

If your organization is dealing with a major change, what can you say to clarify the situation and to instill in the hearts of all of your employees a sense of purpose and drive and significance? Your words matter, a lot.

Sustain a Focused and Flexible Effort

In each piece of research I found that the major change the group was dealing with extended for many years and in most of the situations for many decades or more. The attempt for the United States to form and separate from Great Britain lasted at least from 1768 – 1812. The fight to end slavery in the U.S. formally lasted four years, but really was in the making long before that. The fight for Great Britain to retain its independence went from World War II (1939 – 1945) into the Cold War that lasted much longer with the constant threat of a nuclear war hanging over everyone’s head. The even longer attempts to deal with major change were fighting for equal rights for women, African-Americans, and Native American Indians, each of which has lasted for well over a hundred years.

As you deal with a major change facing your business, be patient and persevere. The effort might even outlast your career. The key is to remain focused on the major change and to continually lean into making it a step toward a better reality.

Also be flexible in your approach to addressing this major change. Look at the variety of ways that Martin Luther King, Jr. attempted to gain equal footing for African-Americans from 1955 – 1968. He marched in non-violent protests, gave inspiring speeches from a church pulpit, met with the president of the United States, wrote a long and clear letter from the Birmingham jail, gave a really powerful and memorable extemporaneous speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., served as the president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, wrote a variety of books, and traveled across the U.S. to get his message across.

As a business leader, what are the different ways you can play a role in guiding your organization, or your part of the organization, toward effectively dealing with the major change confronting you? If you always do the same thing in the same way, you are probably significantly limiting your impact on the ultimate outcome.

Understand the Importance of Freedom and Independence

Another common denominator of all seven major historical changes that I studied was that they were centered on gaining and maintaining freedom and independence. Over and over in multiple societies and on different continents people were willing to lose their lives if it meant helping other people to win and preserve their freedom and independence. If those two values are worth going to war over, imagine how important they are to your employees. Are you allowing your employees to maintain the freedom to think for themselves and to make independent decisions? If you’re not, you may very well be robbing your organization of two of the most important characteristics required to successfully confront a major change.

Retain Your Ability to Choose

Perhaps the most horrific major change that any group of people has ever faced were the Nazi concentration camps of World War II. Millions of Jewish people were marched into a camp where they were either killed or forced to serve as slave laborers in the worst possible conditions. Yet even in this most heinous of major changes people still could retain their ability to choose how they thought about the change.

Viktor Frankl was a Jewish prisoner in a Nazi concentration camp. In his book, Man’s Search for Meaning, he wrote, “We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way…In the final analysis it becomes clear that the sort of person the prisoner became was the result of an inner decision, and not the result of the camp influences alone. Fundamentally, therefore, any man can, even under such circumstances decide what shall become of him – mentally and spiritually. He may retain his human dignity even in a concentration camp.”

No matter how painful the major change your organization is facing becomes for you and your fellow employees, you still have the ability to choose how you think about this change and how you deal with it. You have the freedom to choose your attitude.

It is Healthy for a Leader to Acknowledge His or Her Fears and Confront Them

It is not unhealthy to be afraid of the future. It’s unhealthy to pretend you’re not afraid. Jefferson was afraid when the British soldiers showed up at his home in Virginia looking for him after he wrote the Declaration of Independence. Stanton was afraid her husband would leave her and that others would ridicule her over her stance on women’s rights. Kennedy was afraid that the Cuban Missile Crisis could cause the death of tens of millions of people. Lincoln was afraid that he might be assassinated at any moment for declaring that African-Americans should not be slaves. Crazy Horse and Chief Joseph knew their fight to retain freedom for the Native Indians could likely end their lives. Churchill knew his name was on the Nazi “People of Interest” list, which meant they wanted to kill him. King knew he could be assassinated at any moment. It’s okay to be afraid of the future and what might happen to you. Here are four questions I encourage you to answer.

  1. What are you afraid of as you think about the future?
  2. Why are you afraid?
  3. What can you do to address these fears?
  4. What is your motive for taking action as you move forward?

Motivation is an internal matter. It means having a motive to take action. By acknowledging your fears and reminding yourself of your motive for dealing with this major change, I believe you will be able to move forward in the face of fear and still be effective as a business leader.

Luck Plays an Important Role in Success

Generally speaking, historical leaders became famous because they won. They succeeded in dealing with a major change and came out a winner on the other side. If they got killed along the way like Lincoln, Kennedy and King, they became even more famous, but winning was the crucial variable in determining long-term fame. In a lot of ways this is true in business as well. If you take on a major change and guide your organization to success, you are instantly proclaimed a great business leader. However, you could have been the exact same business leader and lost.

Winston Churchill is considered one of the greatest leaders of all time. The same is true with Thomas Jefferson. John Kennedy is highly regarded for avoiding a nuclear war in October 1962. However, if the Nazi Germans had not diverted their attention away from Great Britain to attack Russia and if the Japanese Air Force had not attacked Pearl Harbor and provoked the United States into joining the attack on Germany, there is a very good chance that the Nazis would have taken over Great Britain. If the British military had leveraged their enormous advantages in December 1776 instead of partying and giving the American colonial army a small window of opportunity to survive and attack, then Great Britain may very well have kept the colonies in their empire. If Fidel Castro had been able to convince Nikita Khrushchev to send a nuclear attack at the U.S. as he wanted to, then Kennedy would likely have been forced to attack Russia with nuclear weapons. Good fortune played a major role in the success of each of these leaders.

In studying Chief Joseph and Crazy Horse, I found they displayed the same courage, they held the same sense of purpose in trying to preserve freedom and independence for their Indian Tribes, and in many ways used the same verbiage as Churchill, Jefferson, Lincoln, and Kennedy. However, luck was not on their side.

After the Civil War, the U.S. military maintained a focus on removing the Indians from any truly independent way of living and forced them onto reservations. The U.S. government could have focused on taking over Canada or Mexico. That would have been similar to Nazi Germany going after Russia and taking their eye a little bit off of Great Britain, but that’s not what happened. The U.S. military’s size and strength was simply too much for the Native Indians to hold them off forever. Based on my research, I admire Chief Joseph and Crazy Horse for their integrity, honesty, ability to influence people in their organizations, and sense of personal dignity as much as I do any of the other leaders. The difference is they lost, and the others won.

As you work to deal successfully against a major change that is affecting your organization, you may win and you may lose. Some things are within your control, and many other things are not. Lead to the best of your ability and operate within the things you can control, but don’t disparage yourself if in the end your organization collapses or fails. Success in dealing with major change requires a lot from you, but it also requires a certain degree of luck to give you the opportunity to succeed.

You have to be Near the Action

You can’t confront major change from an extreme distance. Churchill traveled throughout Great Britain and to Russia and to the United States to gain support for the war efforts against Nazi Germany. Lincoln went and met with the soldiers in the Civil War and went to Gettysburg to be with the citizens who had lost so many loved ones. King walked the streets with sanitation workers and sat in the Birmingham jail and traveled around the country to instill a belief that America needed to change to become better.

Sometimes executives believe they can influence their employees completely from a remote location by using Skype and video conferencing and other high-tech digital communication tools. In reality, they can’t do it successfully over the long term. You have to be with people at least periodically in order to influence those people. I asked a senior-level executive in a Fortune 100 company who lives near me in St. Louis why he traveled almost every week to his four manufacturing plants on the east coast.

He said, “We have a strategic plan and we have things we are trying to accomplish. When I ask one of my general managers how we’re doing and the person says everything is fine, I say, ‘Okay, let’s go over to the plant and see what is actually happening.’ I can’t do that over Skype or through a phone call. I have to be with the person on-site.”

If you’re dealing with a major change, you have to be there with your team members a realistic amount of time in order to truly make an impact.

History provides business leaders with great lessons. Be willing to study great leaders from the past, and ask yourself how the insights you gathered can be applied in your current situation.

Republishing Articles

My newsletters, Thoughts on Excellence, have been republished in approximately 40 trade magazines, on-line publications, and internal publications for businesses, universities, and not-for-profit organizations over the past 20+ years. If you would like to republish all or part of my monthly articles, please send me an e-mail at dan@thecoughlincompany.com with the name of the article you want in the subject heading. I will send you the article in a word document.

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