Two months and counting. Truthfully, did you believe that the Occupy movement would have lasted this long?
Protests happen all the time in this country. Travel to Washington, DC on virtually any day and you will see some group making their presence felt and beliefs known. The freedom to assemble and communicate your opinion is a sacred right in our country that was founded on a protest movement.
And yet, we haven’t seen a movement like this since … last year if you understand that the Occupy movement – while different in its goals – was born out of a frustration that shares striking similarities to the Tea Party.
So what can leaders learn from a movement that has captured the news and proven to be more than just a group of people gathering to share their dissatisfaction? Here are four lessons:
1. You can’t trick the world. The initial stories from the Occupy Wall Street protests shared a similar theme of college graduates unable to find desirable jobs or repay their college loans. This is the logical outcome of three groups that tried to trick the world:
1. The parents who poured the message into their children’s heads that being happy and getting everything you want is a fact of life.
2. The educational establishment that sold the idea that a college degree – even one in a field that has no long-term value in a crowded job market – was a guarantee of meaningful employment and worth crippling debt.
3. The students who believed the first two groups and racked up debt to pursue an education that is virtually useless. They are, in my mind, the least to blame because they were sold the illusion that you can trick the world into guaranteeing happiness or economic success.
The lesson for leaders: Worth in the marketplace is based on value provided. It works that way for individuals, teams, and companies. You can study anything you want. You can produce any product or service you want. The world determines its value based on what’s important to them. Success – economic, relational, and emotional – is earned not guaranteed. It is your job to make sure everyone you influence knows how the world works.
2. Focus matters. The protest movements of the past advocated for a clear goal and presented a course of action to satisfy their grievances. The Occupy movement doesn’t. Focus minimizes both distraction and the influence of fringe elements. It defines the desired state in clear terms that make it easy for others to join the fight. The Occupy movement has held up remarkably well considering that there is no consistent call to action. Imagine its success if it had developed even a minimum amount of focus.
The lesson for leaders: A successful message about change must answer three questions: (1) Change from what to what? (2) Why is this change important to me? (3) What do you want me to do different? Greater clarity of focus increases the opportunity for success.
3. Fairness and freedom are important. The image of the 1 percent amassing enormous wealth on the backs of the 99 percent who are struggling is a powerful reminder that people run toward opportunity when they believe the game isn’t rigged for the benefit of a few. A sense of fairness and the desire for freedom drove the Arab Spring revolts that toppled dictators. It fueled the overturning of feudal Europe, the American Revolution, and the demand for Civil Rights around the world.
The lesson for leaders: People act for their reasons not yours. You can’t ignore the innate human desire for freedom to pursue their dreams. And, you can’t violate the fundamental sense of fairness that exists without eventually seeing people rebel. That rebellion can be visible like the protests, or it can be subtle like the malicious obedience you see in organizations when work practices are viewed as oppressive and demeaning.
4. Ideas travel at light speed. The Occupy movement appeared virtually out of nowhere and spread from Wall Street to Oakland with surprising speed. No one drove from town to town or wrote letters circulating their ideas. Messages, pictures, and video were shared digitally in real time.
The lesson for leaders: Ideas have always changed the world. Technology creates the fuel that transforms their slow organic spread into a wildfire that consumes. You must understand how to use the power of technology to spread and sustain your message. More important, find ways for others to discover, connect with, and advocate for your cause.
Two final thoughts:
1. The most important service any leader can provide is to prepare both the people and the environment for lasting success. We prepare the environment by ensuring freedom of access and, to the greatest extent possible, fairness of the process. We prepare the people by teaching the notions of value given for value provided and personal accountability.
2. It is a mistake to support or dismiss the Occupy movement simply on the basis of your philosophical alignment with its goals. Not all capitalists are bad. And, not every capitalist is good. It is, however, important to celebrate the success of democracy that is on display.