How to Lead a Revolution

“You say you want a revolution?”     – John Lennon

The revolutions unfolding in the Middle East may seem spontaneous, chaotic and ragtag. But we’ve found that certain principles apply to any revolution that sustains and succeeds; whether it’s in Syria or the United States; whether it’s in politics or business.

In fact, we’ve been lucky enough to take part in and learn from some of the most impactful political and business revolutions in the past 40 years. Our book, The Underdog Advantage, defines the common principles of successful insurgent campaigns.

Revolutions have rules for success – in warfare and politics. And we are seeing these same revolutionary forces in most business markets today. In almost every area of the world and every marketplace, traditional market leaders seem to stand there flat-footed and dazed as float-like-a-butterfly-sting-like-a-bee insurgents swarm around them.

Of course, we all want to lead a revolution. Deep down, we all do want to change the world (or our world).   We’d love to run or be a part of a really cool, edgy, innovative company that’s tearing up the marketplace.   And we all know that ordinary just doesn’t cut it anymore.  Business-as-usual won’t make it in this turbulent, hyper-competitive environment.   It takes a revolutionary spirit to compete and win today.

  • But how do you become a revolutionary leader?  Is it nature or nurture?
  • How do you and your organization stop acting like a slow, bureaucratic incumbent (whether you’re a market leader or follower) and start acting like a mobile, agile and aggressive insurgent?

Do you want to be more like Steven Jobs and have a company that’s more like Apple, or Zappos or Under Armour or Red Bull or Facebook? We’ve been able to work with many of the great bomb-throwers of the past forty years in global business; Steven Jobs, Mike Roberts, Joanna Jacobson, Bill Gates, Don Keough, Mickey Drexler, Rupert Murdoch, Mary Wells, Michael King, Michael Milken, Bob Iger, Dan Weiden and many others.  In fact, we’ve built our insurgent strategic discipline at Core Strategy Group around the lessons learned from these change leaders.

This article consolidates a lot of what we’ve learned into a users’ manual for leaders of revolutionary organizations.

1) What’s the Revolution?

If you really want to lead a revolutionary organization, there’s one cold hard fact you must begin with – you can only be a revolutionary if you’re part of a true revolution. Wearing blue jeans in an investment bank doesn’t make you a revolutionary.  This isn’t about fashion or cutting-edge affectation – it’s about changing the world in which you work and live. Mike Milken wore a traditional (and very inexpensive) business suit – and led a revolution that democratized capital in the U.S.  It’s about bet-your-career boldness in order to wage and win that revolution.  The young people in Tahrir Square have put a lot more than their careers on the line to create a revolution of opportunity in Egypt.

  • Revolution isn’t just about beating the competition or being the badass of your industry.  It’s about changing the world in which you work and live. It’s not about harassing the people who work for you with drill sergeant orders.  Sam Walton caused a lot of trouble … but he did it on the way to a revolution that changed the way Americans buy things and, to a great extent, the way we live.  The wreckage he left behind was a mom ‘n’ pop business model that didn’t really work for its customers or communities.
  • A revolution isn’t just gaining market share or raising shareholder value. Coke versus Pepsi doesn’t make a revolution. Coke and Pepsi versus tap water sixty years ago, was, indeed, a revolution.  That changed human behavior and created an enormous ecosystem around the manufacture, marketing, distribution and accompaniments of these soft drinks.  Enron created skyrocketing shareholder value … in fact they watched the skyrocket much more closely than they watched their original business concept, which cratered not far off the launch pad.
  • Revolution means changing the order of things in your marketplace, in your world … and changing them for the better. Amazon did this.  So did e-Bay.  Same for Gilt Group.  Same for Southwest Airlines (as did Peoples’ Express before them).
2) Join the Big Parade.

This revolution of yours will most often be a part of a much bigger revolution of broader technological, economic and social change; your own revolution will be one of many streams running into that raging torrent. You’ve got to identify, understand and join that bigger revolution.

  • As much as Apple, Microsoft or Facebook have changed the way we live and work – they are all a part of an information revolution that is exponentially bigger than all three; a revolution that has changed every aspect of our lives and the lives of all people on earth.
  • Whole Foods Markets are part of a dietary and wellness revolution that is way bigger than the changes they’ve made to retail food sales.  Natural and fresh and even local are more widely relevant than organic.
  • Green is a political movement – green companies are only molecules of that movement; dependent on the success of the overall movement for their own support and sustenance.

It’s not bad to be a part of a bigger revolution – that can help educate the public, create a much wider support base and provide suppliers and partners who share your interests and values.

What is your revolution? How are you changing the way things are done in your industry?  How are you joining with others to change the world?

3)  First, Win the Internal Revolution.

Once you’ve defined the overall revolution you want to create or join … chances are you will have to create an internal revolution within your organization before you’ll get the opportunity to create or join a true revolution outside it. Indeed, that fight might be your toughest fight.

  • When Steven Jobs moved the Mac division out of Apple and into a Cupertino strip mall, most business and management experts felt he was simply disrupting the successful Apple business model and culture; he was treated like a petulant, immature kid.  But revolution within the self-satisfied Apple Computer of the time was necessary in order to join in the bigger information revolution that was changing business computing forever (and changing everything else in the world along with it).  Nevertheless, leading that revolution eventually cost Steven his job and control of Apple.
  • Jobs knew that the “PC Revolution” (as it was then called), as a part of the even bigger “Information Revolution,” would change the world.  Bill Gates knew that, too.  So did Mitch Kapor and Jim Manzi of Lotus.  Same for Gordon Eubanks of Symantec and John Lasseter of Pixar.  No matter the bitter rivalry between Apple, Microsoft and the other super-aggressive, revenge-of-the-nerds insurgents in software and hardware development in the ‘70’s and ‘80’s – they shared the same overall goals and very often joined forces in the cause of change.  At the time, Microsoft’s corporate mission was simply stated: “A computer on every desk, in every home.”  It didn’t matter that Microsoft didn’t make computers – all boats would rise with the tide of that revolution (and, okay, Windows made Microsoft a super tanker, even then).

All of these leaders evangelized the ways in which personal computers would improve our lives – they were right. The “PC Revolution” was meant to change the way people work and live.  It certainly did.  Just think of the role of Facebook, Google and Twitter in the current political revolutions.

Mostly, the “PC Revolutionaries” fought against the very idea of business-as-usual; the hidebound resistance to change of the biggest organizations. It was insurgents against incumbents – or, as Pat Caddell and I wrote in “The Dolphin Versus the Shark” model for Steven Jobs: “It’s change-leaders versus bigness-leaders.”

  • Bigness-Leaders, the market leading incumbents (and those who try to imitate their “leadership” behavior), are driven by the heritage of success and a sense of manifest destiny.  So they chart the future course through the rear view mirror.  Naturally, they hate change.  They despise disruption and deviation from the norms they established.
  • Change-Leaders, the market insurgents, are future-driven; always looking out the front windshield and on to the horizon.  They are informal and irreverent as an organization.  And they love change – because change means opportunity.

Revolution is a heady thing.  It unites your company and all its stakeholders in a common cause.  It pumps adrenaline through your system and stands up the hair on the back of your necks.  It gets you up before dawn and gets you to bed only when another battle has been won.  Revolution creates enormous opportunity – it’s your best shot at ending up in the history books. We highly recommend it.

As for getting into the history books, or even Wikipedia, remember what Abraham Lincoln told his cabinet members during America’s Civil War: “We will be remembered in spite of ourselves.  No personal significance or insignificance will spare one or another of us.  The fiery trial through which we pass will light us down … in honor or dishonor … to the latest generation.”

The revolutionary will be remembered … “in honor or dishonor;” those are the winner-take-all odds you face.  Follow these rules of revolutionaries … this is what’s been working for insurgents and underdogs for several thousand years.

4)  Define Success.

Now that you’ve clearly defined the revolution you want to lead and the revolution you want to join – and now that you’ve won the internal revolution to allow insurgent thinking in your organization – you must clearly understand what it will bean to win that revolution.  You must granularly define success.

  • In our company we’ve often called this “destination planning.”  That’s a pretty accurate description of the process.  You revolution is a journey – and you have to understand and be able to communicate that destination to all the constituents of your cause and all those you want to attract.  Define some of the metrics of success for your organization.  Define how people will feel, think and behave differently as a result of this revolution.  The common goal of all insurgent campaigns is change – what’s the order of things that you’re going to change?
5)  Define the Enemy?

A vividly defined enemy focuses and energizes your revolution … personifies the Dark Forces that must be overcome.  There’s no problem with that if your enemy is Hosni Mubarak or Muamar Gadaffi.  For Steven Jobs’ Mac division, it was IBM and the whole idea of “man serving machine,” the basis of autocracy.  At the time that personified the Soviet Union. Clearly depict your enemy – the enemy of this revolution and the obstacle to the benefits that would result from it.  It’s not enough to define your most obvious competitor as “the enemy” – unless that competitor is in the way of changes that would improve the lives of consumers and communities in your marketplace.  In that case, take them out with a passion.

  • Remember, that enemy doesn’t have to be an external force. When the great Mike Roberts led McDonald’s revolution from “worst to first” six years ago, the enemy was the reality and the image of what the company had become in its operational nadir at the beginning of this century … to its customers, its owner-operators, to its suppliers and to its communities.  “Junk food” was the enemy – and “good food fast” was the goal.   Although the documentary “Super-Size Me” was mostly hype, it corresponded with a profound effort by McDonald’s to improve the quality and healthiness of its food.  “The Puzzle Palace” style of management of the Oak Brook headquarters was also the enemy; that had allowed an “okay is good enough” attitude to creep into the system over the years.  Friction between headquarters and the franchisees had evolved into open warfare in many areas.  For Mike and his team a true partnership in change with the owner-operators was the goal.
  • Often it’s a good idea to characterize the competition as a group in a “rat pack” – all are part of the traditional order of things in your market which must change for consumers and others to get a fair shake.  That “rat pack” often includes the incumbent market leaders and those who imitate them in “followership.”  For Ray Kroc the “rat pack” was the uneven quality and value mom ‘n’ pop hamburger joints that dotted the landscape before McDonald’s.  One was terrific; the next was ptomaine.  McDonald’s stood for an expectable level of quality and value.
  • It’s not only important to know your enemies – you must know who your friends are – comrades in arms in this revolution. While the Arab saying is true, “My enemy’s enemy is my friend;” it’s even more true that “my friend’s friend is my friend.”  You must be ready to do what you can for others in your cause.  You must constantly be trying to move the Soft Support of your revolutionary cause to Hard Support.  Almost everybody noted the moment last year when Apple Computer’s net value exceeded that of Microsoft.  Few remembered that Apple once survived only because of a $500 million infusion of cash from Bill Gates.  My friends’ friends are my friends.
6)  Communicate, Communicate, Communicate.

One of the first and most important positions filled in any revolutionary organization is “Minister of Information.”  Whether the revolution is just a bully’s power grab or a truly democratic action, effective communication are essential to success.

  • Our political experience in every part of the world has taught us a lasting lesson: the most effective form of propaganda is the truth. But even the truth must be well told (As H.K. McCann of McCann-Erickson said).  As a revolutionary, you must build your support (in the electorate or marketplace) from nothing; create disciples and missionaries of your cause.  You do this from the inside/out; and you must transfer ownership of your goals and your strategies to all who join your cause (as participants or customers).  Core Strategy Group has developed a discipline we call “CEO as Candidate.”  It recognizes that today’s corporate leader must be able to communicate like an effective political leader.  Yes, that also means that everything you say and do communicates to your friends and enemies.  It’s not just the speeches and presentations and press conferences.  The political rule applies: what can be known will be known.  Prepare yourself for that reality – when euphemism evolves to evasion, you have pointed your ski tips down a very slippery slope.  We advise all leaders: “You’re going to tell the truth eventually.  You’re going to tell the truth whether you want to or not.  You’re going to tell the truth on your terms on other the terms of your opponents.  So it’s best to tell the truth early and well and often.”
  • Once you’ve defined the revolution – you must find the most compelling, simple and credible way to communicate it.

You must …

  • Define your cause (what and whom this revolution is all about).
  • Define yourself (and the values basis on which you make decisions).
  • Define the stakes in this revolution for everyone who takes part.
  • Define the future that will be achieved when you win.

These definitions create the framework of your basic message, what we call the “3X5 Card” (it’s the basic communications tool of any successful political campaign).  This is the fundamental argument for the revolution.  It’s the fundamental narrative of your brand and company.  It must be simple, resonant, stated in personal terms (with clearly defined personal benefits) and constantly repeated.  These basic messages should not change unless the underlying “campaign” strategy changes.  That means this basic message framework should be communicated in every kind of situation – from marketing communications to industry events to sales presentations to internal meetings and even informal conversations … everything and all the time.  Loyalists and all friendly stakeholders or experts and opinion shapers should be encouraged to communicate those same messages.  The spread of the revolution’s narrative helps soften the beaches for each new advance of your cause.

  • Remember that actions communicate loudest of all. Never lose sight of the fact that the tiniest details of operations and communications must align with your revolutionary strategy and objectives.
7)  Embrace Change.

We have already spoken of the incumbents’ aversion to change.  An autocracy is static – its rules are immutable (and the number one of those rules is that “what was, will be”).  At the heart of the incumbent leader is a profound dislike of deviation and difference.  The revolutionary organization is the opposite; it is dynamic.  All of the experts talking about the various popular revolutions taking place in the Middle East have cautioned: “You just can’t know how things are going to turn out.”  To be a true revolutionary, you must accept, embrace and encourage change.  That’s what Jefferson wanted for America forever.

  • This is particularly tough when you think your revolution has been a success. For instance, everyone will agree that Barack Obama ran a brilliant insurgent campaign to win election to the Presidency in 2008.  A great majority of the American people embraced his call for fundamental change as a revolution against the status quo in Washington.  However a great majority of the political elite on the Democratic side had all the fundamental change they wanted when Obama was elected.  And the President almost immediately handed the keys to the Oldsmobile to the Democratic leaders of Congress.  Suddenly he started to act and quack like an incumbent.  If he’s going to be re-elected in 2012 … he’ll have to position himself as an insurgent again.  And it won’t be as easy this time around.
  • An insurgent organization is opportunity-driven.  That’s why insurgents love change – because change creates opportunity.   What we’ve learned in our work is that in today’s high-speed information environment crisis and opportunity have the same dynamics.  The opportunistic organization is also best at facing sudden challenges.
  • Being opportunistic is not just about being aggressive, however.  Successful revolutionaries never meet armies with armies. That’s a sure way to get wiped out by the incumbent powers.  Instead, take the advice of famous football coach Boyd Williams: “Take what they give you!”  Constantly probe the market for opportunities provided by weaknesses in the incumbent’s operations, distribution system, marketing and brand meaning, or CRM and overall value proposition.  It’s those soft spots that you attack – in football terms, that’s the daylight you run to.
  • When you attack, put every resource you have behind that attack – force your larger competitors to react to you; force them to go from offense to defense. Force them to re-draw strategy and undoubtedly uncover new soft spots and new opportunities for you.  Once the incumbent engages you, you have credibility; you have the spotlight and become the market’s main event.  That’s the ideal.
8)  Create a democracy.

Too many revolutionaries don’t really believe in democracy.  They believe so strongly in their vision that they don’t really want to accept the ideas of others.  That’s understandable; often, that’s part of the drive of a genius.  Still, history shows us that doesn’t work for long.  Nobody’s that good — not Stalin, not Mao, not Muamar.  The most effective revolutionary organizations are democratic organizations.  As our group has traveled the world doing political and business campaigns, we’ve learned a very simple lesson: democracy is good; more democracy is better; and fluid democracy – a constant interactive dialogue – is best of all. That dialogue is vital to a company and its system; all the way up the supply chain and down the demand chain.  A great leader must be a great communicator – but a great leader must be a great listener first.  In this dialogue is where you will spot the earliest signs of trouble or opportunity.  Both opportunity and crisis arise faster than ever before.

  • As General David Petraeus has shown in his success in Iraq and Afghanistan … you’ve got to be in the dialogue in order to shape the dialogue.  His “surge” strategies have emphasized open dialogue with friends and the not-so-friendlies.  Constant, fluid dialogue is what stops the unexpected flare-ups.
  • Democracy means listening and hearing what your people are saying – the leader often has to demonstrate listening through actions and recognize those who provide useful ideas.  Recognition is vital part of communications in a revolutionary organization.
  • You want to create a team of leaders … all of whom accept the challenges of the revolution as their personal challenges.  So train and encourage your people to make leadership decisions themselves.  And teach them to be democratic leaders – to believe in democracy and use it to make themselves smarter and better.
  • Clearly define which decisions are going to be centralized and which are de-centralized: clearly define your decisions, those you make with your team’s input, those they make with your input and the decisions that are theirs alone.  Then avoid the no-man’s land of “our decisions.”  Consensus decisions are owned by nobody … with no consequences and no rewards.
9) Celebrate!

You undoubtedly know that the cardinal rule of insurgent strategy is “do the doable.”   That means making the most of all resources.  Waste is a mortal sin.  So …  

  • You must establish achievable goals.
  • Start with the fruit on the ground even before you reach for the low hanging stuff.
  • And it’s important to celebrate every achievement – high-five every first down on the way to the ultimate score.
  • Celebration and recognition create the juice that feeds your colleagues in this revolution.  It helps fuel the momentum that will provide a sense of inevitability of your success.
  • Recognition is the most important kind of reward for great work.  So work that into every celebration – transfer ownership of the good feelings.

Winning is good – winning a true revolution is even better.

Make your mark on the market forever.  Change direction of your own company and the marketplace in which you operate.  In the end it will be your customers and all consumers who will get the true and lasting benefits of this revolution.  That’s what really makes it work.  To win … make sure lots of others win.

No great challenge is overcome without risk.  Know clearly what you’re willing to risk to win – then put your square your shoulders and hit the line.