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24 Jan 2011

Tunisia’s Lessons for Business Leaders

Many leadership models give the leader almost divine characteristics or minimally the best humanity can offer within a business context. These models often position the leader as the vanguard of change, the influencer who can move an enterprise from its current state to its future one.

Tunisia’s first lesson is just how conditional leadership really is. Rather than a visionary triggering and influencing events, the leader is often just trying to avoid being overrun. Tunisia’s uprising was not “ordered” by any leader. Tunisia’s second lesson is emotion’s power in galvanizing collective action around a particular point. Demanding free elections is that point in Tunisia. Finally, the third lesson is how small, simple, singular events can trigger these emotions. In Tunisia, the trigger was a college-educated street vendor who set himself on fire.

What do these lessons mean for business leaders?

First, a leader who fits one particular set of circumstances might not fit another. A large, mature enterprise defending its turf from competitors is going to require a different leader than a small, virgin one trying to tap an undeveloped market. Second, emotions are more powerful at galvanizing employees than any reasoned list of benefits. That means connecting initiatives to the particular emotions dominating the workforce such as greatness, safety, happiness and competitiveness. Third, the trigger doesn’t have to be grandiose. Small events that symbolize something greater about the enterprise can do it. This means small, almost invisible success stories can create a powerful narrative about the enterprise and its mission.

Overall, Tunisia reminds us that the number one resistor to change is often the leader of the enterprise. New conditions might necessitate a new leader.

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