Optimistically I watch as more nations across the globe confront  mass protests because I think it is a signal that democracy is alive and working. A sign that people feel their voice is important and needs to be heard (whether it is about the rising costs of public services  in Brasil or about personal freedom restrictions in Turkey).

On not so optimistic days, I feel a sense of dread watching the way in which protests are being handled or treated by those who lead.

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red carnation protest in Taksim Square, Istanbul, 22 July 2013

While I do not resemble the demographic of young, impatient, e-connected profile of the average protestor today (I am in my 50s and my ‘battle scars’ have tempered my demands to have complete say over how I live), I was once an angry student protestor in the 70s.  And we did bring about change including cutting short a bloody war in Vietnam, stopping the full-scale sell off of public assets or national heritage buildings we were told had to make way for progress. Public protests have been important for many centuries and will no doubt continue to erupt even in countries so far spared through this recent wave. It will continue as long as those who lead lose touch and governments lose the art of listening and learning.  This failure to create political structures that enable listening will result in ‘protest politics’ becoming main stream politics.  Vilifying and demonising those who only ask for a voice is not a clever way forward.

How did we lose the ability to listen – to listen in order to learn about the reality of those who are being led? How did our democratic institutions become so fossilised, so bureaucratic, so hijacked by lobby groups that we lost our ability to listen to those who mattered?

The lessons in this for organisations are clear. The rise of  ‘protest politics’ can also emerge in organisations if we fail to revitalise them, embed new ‘co-governing’ or ‘co-ownership’ principles.  Ignoble change for those who lead our organisations can come quickly and brutally or it can be slow and quiet. In either case the outcome will be painful for those who lead. There is a repeating pattern that leads to such change. First, as the leader, we create ‘systems of meaning’ that confirm to ourselves we are right, then we make choices to justify our past choices, then we lock ourselves into a set of beliefs that creates dangerous convictions we and our supporters never question,  then we stay in like-minded communities which further entrenches our beliefs and then we wave off dissenters through the loudness of our dismissals (telling ourselves they are misinformed, misled or plain wrong, or in the case of Turkey blaming foreign elements or social media). By this stage our legitimacy to lead is in question but we rarely know it.  We are confident of our skill to lead (after all we were chosen among others) and our path is the right one.

It does not have to be this way, in organisations or in societies.  Should we only sit up and recognise a breach of values in our companies when a whistleblower goes to the authorities, or when marginalised but talented minorities depart for our competitors or when investors desert our stock driven down by a strategy that we have doggedly staked our personal reputation on?

When you start to lose your followers, your right to lead is in question. But why wait till then? Why not make your career goal to question your right to lead and create processes that help you do that. Processes that help you and those that lead with you to continually question the reasons for success to date, questioning your version of the truth, clear about the goals but confidently uncertain about how to get there so that other voices can feel included and so on.

Power is an equation – the only sustainable version being the ‘power with’ equation. The ‘power over’ ‘power under’ equation is not a sustainable one at any time, in any setting, or under any circumstances.  How we lead must change unless we want the unsettling influences of  ‘protest politics’ to pervade organisational life.

Written by Meena Thuraisingham, Founder and Director of TalentInvest


Written by Meena Thuraisingham
Director and Principal, Talent Invest

Meena Thuraisingham is a consultant, author, executive coach and thought leader in the area of People and Culture. An organisational psychologist by training, she founded TalentInvest, a niche consulting practice, advising global clients in the UK, Asia and Australia in Capability and Culture. Meena is also a regular speaker internationally on leadership effectiveness and culture change.

Her published books are The Secret Life of Decisions, Careers Unplugged and Derailed!. Get Your Copy Today