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Kotter, change and the Long Walk to Freedom

I wrote this article in 2014, using the story of Mandela's "Long Walk to Freedom" in South Africa as an example of change theory in action. Having recently rediscovered it, the lessons seem to be just as relevant now. Let me know what you think.

John Kotter, the change guru from Harvard Business School, has set out an eight step process for implementing change in several books, notably “Leading Change” (1996) and, with Dan Cohen, “The Heart of Change” (2002), whose terminology for the model is used below.

I was preparing to teach this theory to a group of senior Finance Managers in a London local authority early in December 2013, just after the death of Nelson Mandela, and it struck me that a great deal of Mandela's “Long Walk to Freedom” gives an excellent illustration of Kotter’s change model at work.

One important premise of Kotter’s process is that it is sequential – you have to get one step under way before the next step can begin. In practice, there is almost always some overlap – the previous stage is not fully finished before the next one starts – and, as practitioners in organisational change know full well, there is seldom just one change happening at a time. But the step-by-step notion does provide two ideas which are, in my view, important: firstly, that the pre-requisites have to have been addressed for the next stage to succeed; and, secondly, that to rush the process or skip any of the steps is to condemn the change project to failure. Decades of incarceration, perhaps, gave Mandela the time to become a patient, diligent and attentive student of large-scale and complex change and to follow through all eight stages.

Increase Urgency

Kotter asserts that it is not usually enough to be rationally persuaded of the need to change – we need to see and feel the need. This speaks to notions of vision, emotional engagement and motivation.

Clearly, the developing situation in the South Africa of the early 1990s was full of urgency. There was constant harassment, including border raids, from the neighbouring front-line states. I recall that many South Africans – and not only the privileged white middle class – reported at the time that they feared a blood-bath. Some decided to leave, never to return.

Internally, the country experienced increasing political and economic disruption on the one hand from internal opposition such as the trade union organisation COSATU and the anti-militarist COSAWR; and on the other from white vigilantists like the far-right AWB. Added to this was a growing level of international economic, political and moral pressure: sanctions and embargoes; the departure of large international businesses; sporting boycotts; cultural events such as the Steve Biko biopic “Cry Freedom”; and public recognition for critics such as Desmond Tutu, who received a Nobel peace prize, and banned newspaper editor Desmond Woods.

The South African government of the time felt understandably isolated, attacked and defensive and acted in what appeared to external observers to be irrational and extreme ways – as in its fearful and violent response to largely unarmed students during the 1976 Soweto riots.

Change experts talk about the “felt need” for change and clearly change was felt, needed and with urgency. The question was, what change?

Build the Guiding Team

“When the pupil is ready, the teacher will come” encapsulates the re-emergence of Mandela from the obscurity of Robben Island to become a visible world figure. It was no accident. Even from exile in prison, he retained links with, and a high level of control over, the banned opposition group, the ANC, and its military offshoot, Umkhonto we Sizwe. Overseas political leaders and public figures, looking for a visible cause and encouraged by lobbyists such as Anti-Apartheid in the UK, took up his case. He became a talked-about, sometimes controversial, cause celebre, culminating in the international showcase of the 1988 “Freedom at 70” concert in London.

Picked out as an obvious leader, Mandela did not do the obvious thing. When contemplating change, Kotter argues that it is important to have the right guiding team. This is not necessarily the established, positional power structure. Mandela went over the heads of long-standing friends and supporters, establishing dialogue with those on the other side who he felt could be aligned to a peaceful transition to the new South Africa. As well as the relatively mild President de Klerk, he met with previous downright enemies including the Foreign Minister, Pik Botha. And he won them over. He would say he took a risk. In Kotter’s parlance, he established a necessary “guiding coalition”. In the words of one other organisational guru, Jim Collins, we can say that Nelson Mandela did what leaders do when they are building structures that they intend to last – he took time, patience and careful effort to “get the right people on the bus.”

Get the Vision Right

John Kotter, our change expert, argues that having the right guiding team is necessary to effect sustained change. But it is not sufficient. Again, Mandela took evident time and trouble to articulate and secure the vision that he wanted. He rejected half answers and compromises, such as power sharing that fell short of “one man, one vote” or early release with conditions. He waited and eventually, the guiding team enabled him to come out of prison and back into visible public life. When Nelson Mandela walked out of Victor Vorster prison as a free man, it was without conditions and on his own terms. He was not prepared to settle for less than his vision of a non-racial, democratic nation and, once that was in sight, he took pains to communicate this vision at every opportunity.

Communicate for Buy-In

Once the vision is clear, Kotter states, we are duty bound to communicate it using every effective means. The biggest dangers to change are in his view under-communication and the failure to connect in any emotional and engaging way.

From his opening speech, Mandela – trained for the courtroom – showed a powerful ability to communicate and engage. He appeared warm, approachable and ready to listen, even to unwelcome news. He chose his words carefully and was willing to select and use the words of others when they made the impact he wanted:

“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented and fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small doesn't serve the world. There's nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won't feel insecure around you”

(Mandela, quoting Marianne Williamson in 1994)

Mandela was out there, visible everywhere he was needed on the national and international stage, and vocal, especially at critical moments. He was careful, as Kotter also teaches, to ensure that his words and his actions remained in line; publicly scolding ANC supporters who engaged violently against Inkatha Freedom Party opponents. Our words speak loudly; and our actions have to be consistent with those words, or as he well understood, the words are devalued.

Much of Mandela’s talk was dialogue – exemplifying Kotter’s principle that one-way communication has limited power – and he spoke to and with all audiences, including his former opponents.

Empower Action

In “The Heart of Change”, Kotter and Cohen argue that the role of the change leader is to let change happen – to empower action. That means setting a direction but not trying to control every detail. Mandela seems throughout his period of active leadership to have danced between control, in things that most mattered, and empowerment. He spoke many times of his fundamental belief in democracy and seemed to recognise that many of the answers lie in the wider group – that there is strength and resilience in collective effort that cannot be achieved by a single leader or clique.

The most visible symbol of this letting go of power – and thereby, paradoxically, becoming more powerful – was in the creation of the Truth and Reconciliation process. It was risky but Mandela and his fellow leaders believed that the answers would emerge – that it was necessary to discuss difference and conflict, without creating blame and defensiveness, even when it was excruciatingly painful for those involved. The process was cathartic, emblematic of the change that was taking place and, importantly, of the transparent way in which the new South Africa was choosing to act.

Create Short-Term Wins

Short-term wins are important for many reasons – we learn from them, we gain confidence and we maintain the momentum of larger changes. Even before the universal South African elections took place, Mandela and his guiding coalition set about dismantling the apparatus of petty apartheid – removing many of the deeply unpopular rules and tokens of “separate development” and clearly demonstrating the direction that they were embarked upon. The changes told supporters and cynics alike that change was under way; and it created new support in the process.

Don’t Let Up

Kotter warns against the trap of mistaking quick wins for ultimate victories. Don’t let up, he counsels, until the vision is fully in place and embedded.

In this same vein, Nelson Mandela clearly understood the election was a start, not an end, to creating the new South Africa. Pursuing sustained change requires perseverance and for successive hurdles and difficulties to be overcome – we can think of examples such as the Inkatha/ANC conflict and Mandela’s stoic and visible support for his then wife, during the trial of Winnie Mandela and the “Mandela football team” - her personal bodyguards - for murder. Justice had to be done openly, and it had to be seen to be done; and family had to be supported, even when they had committed grave errors. It was important to behave honourably, even in times of personal difficulty.

Make Change Stick

The last, and most challenging of all the tasks of change, is to make change stick. This means embedding change so that going back becomes unthinkable – as now appears to be the case in South Africa. As well as the obvious cultural artefacts – including, famously, wearing the Springbok jersey at the Rugby World Cup final – Mandela brought about other less visible but critical signs. South Africa has a different constitution; a new parliament; and a welcome place on the world stage.

Kotter warns that succession is one of the final challenges in making change stick and this has indeed proved critical. Mandela handed power over early, which enabled him to maintain moral authority without positional power; and his successors are keenly aware of whose shoes they have stepped into. [Postscript: with the recent change of leadership in 2018, this seems to be as true as ever!]

Change is not easy and the scale of change that South Africa has faced, through Mandela’s lifetime, is considerable and continues. Perhaps the ultimate artifact of culture change is legacy: in the words not of Mandela but another of the twentieth century’s great thinkers, George Bernard Shaw:

"Life is no brief candle to me; it is a sort of splendid torch which I've got a hold of for the moment and I want to make it burn as brightly as possible before handing it on to future generations."

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