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Five Leadership Lessons from Tahrir Square

We have captured some excerpts from Larry Miller’s longer blog post (which can be read here) reacting to the recent events in Egypt. Also an excellent opportunity to mention his latest book helping us build new, successful businesses Lean Culture – The Leader’s Guide.

It is impossible to watch the dramatic events in Egypt without meditating on the lessons for leaders, whether of countries or companies. I would like to share five leadership lessons that stand out and should not be ignored by leaders.

1. The Greater the Control, The Greater the Tendency to Instability

It is a paradox. Mubarak maintained every form of control he could imagine over his opposition and his people. But the corollary to this absolute control is that this creates a closed system, one that failed to process feedback from its environment and this led to the ultimate instability. Improvement comes from the feedback loops and the process of adaptation between the internal and external environments of an organization. The walls between the internal and extended environment (suppliers, partners) need to become extremely porous, almost non-existent.

The more dominant a leader like Mubarak, the less he felt a need to listen, respond, or respect those outside of his dominant circle. Arrogance is the greatest enemy of learning and quality.

2. Don’t Underestimate the Power Of Self-Organization

Those in power tend to believe that their followers will be lost without their guidance and control. Tahrir Square over the past weeks has been an incredible demonstration of the power of “self-organization.” The protesters entered Tahrir Square with no apparent leader, no organization, and no assigned responsibilities. But, given a common purpose, they organized themselves. They formed organization and took responsibility for checking those who entered the square to assure they weren’t carrying weapons. They organized sanitation. They organized medical services. They organized security and protection within the square. The developed a complex and highly effective system of communication. They were highly self-organized and this organization, done with dignity and restraint, set an example that could not be ignored. They did not elect formal leaders and no one sought to assume the role of leader. They acted with incredible maturity. And, most important, their organization was focused on clear goals and achieved those goals.

The power of self-organization is present in every organization. It is too often dismissed as a chaotic disruption to the formal lines of authority. Those who are “on-the-spot,” whether in a factory, a school, or on the streets, when empowered to solve problems most often have the capacity to self-organize.

3. The Worst Speech in the History of the World!

No leader should underestimate the potential influence of an effective public presentation. Mubarak’s last speech talked down to his “children” in the most condescending tone. He appeared not to understand that it was families, doctors, lawyers, workers, as well as students who had taken to Tahrir Square to protest his rule. They were tired of being treated and spoken to as if they were his children.  His speech displayed no recognition or empathy for the concerns of his followers.

This is when followers cease to follow. Leaders lead by creating a sense of shared purpose, shared values and common vision that can inspire their followers. Leader’s never motivate followers by talking down to them, by expressing their own self-importance. Leaders lead by expressing empathy and creating bonds of unity with their followers.

4. Tipping Points Emerge at the Speed of the Internet

The Egyptian revolution was in the making for thirty years. But, the power of Facebook, as Google executive Wael Ghonim has explained, enabled fifty to a hundred thousand Egyptians to collaborate instantaneously and form a consensus to action. The power of the Internet has never been demonstrated more clearly.

Every organization survives by its ability to adapt to change in the external environment. The ability to hear, to sense, to respond and adapt to changes taking place, only to be seen on the Internet, will determine your ability to survive the next tipping point in your marketplace.

5. In Purpose there is Unity; In Unity there is Power

For me, the most moving picture of all pictures coming from Tahrir Square was the picture of the mass of Muslims bowed down in daily prayer. But, it wasn’t those in prayer that moved me. Surrounding those bowed in prayer was a circle of men holding arms and facing outward, protecting the worshipers from attack. Who were these defenders? They were Christians! What more can one say?

Never underestimate the power of purpose to unite people in a common pursuit. No single group could have succeeded in this revolution. It was the power to unite diverse people in common purpose that tore down the walls of dictatorial authority. That power is latent in every organization if leaders would only call upon it.

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