Revolution


Frank and Neil discuss how large organizations can be transformed, bottom-up, by small groups of individuals with an abiding purpose.

Neil, you asked me how individuals and small groups like Diane and her team who come and go like smoke in the wind can transform large organizations. It depends on the power and persistence of the cultural “tags” they create. If the tags are sufficiently meaningful they can outlive the groups who create them and go on and on for decades, even centuries. Think of St. Francis and his Franciscan followers and their brown‑robed community whose message about simplicity has lasted for over six centuries!

Human history emerges from the actions of dedicated individuals like Francis and Diane [one of Neil's employees, who is intent on changing things in his company] and their supporters. But there’s something else going on as well. Darwinists say it’s only chance and survival of the fittest. I disagree. I think somehow, mysteriously, the Yes‑world [the hidden influence of goodness] also guides how human history is shaped. (From now on I will refer to the Yes‑world’s actions in human society as ‘Influence,’ to distinguish them from all the other political and cultural factors that people use to describe how history emerges.)

To understand how the Yes‑world’s Influence works in everyday situations in companies like yours I want to tell you a story about a woman I know called Hannah. She started a gentle revolution within her organization by changing her team’s conversation about Yes‑world Influence. She was no Francis, or a saint, just a woman like Diane who decided to change things.

To get her ideas across Hannah used a metaphor for an organizational ecosystem—a forest, and its trees and leaves. Organizations are like the forest. Teams are like trees. When trees are healthy and growing the forest expands. Similarly, when teams do their work well the organization succeeds.

Each individual in a team is a leaf on the tree. There is something special about an individual leaf. It has a unique capability, although it’s only a very small part of a tree and a forest. Leaves create food for trees. Each leaf has the power to transform light from the sun and carbon dioxide from the atmosphere into food for the tree through a unique process called photosynthesis. The leaf also exchanges oxygen back into the atmosphere. Without leaves there would be no trees and no forest, a lot less oxygen and probably no other life on earth for that matter. Leaves have the ultimate power to grow forests—just as individuals have the ultimate power to heal organizations.

In this metaphor, Hannah was describing how the Yes‑world’s Influence works through individuals to transform the DNA of organizations. Imagine that the Yes‑world is like the sun. Just as photosynthesis works with the energy of the sun through leaves to enable trees and forests to grow, there is collaboration between the Yes‑world and individuals to create special ‘food’ that organizations need to grow and heal themselves. Even though a person is only one leaf, if she is in exchange with the Yes‑world she can bring something powerful, a new idea, new food to nourish goodness in her group, and ultimately the entire organization.

The point of this metaphor is that human collaboration with the Yes‑world is a vital part of changing the DNA of organizations. Hannah’s simple leaf‑tree‑forest story helps people begin to see they aren’t alone or powerless to change things in large organizations. Together with the Yes‑world’s Influence they can transform the way human needs are addressed in their team and organization. Innocent fools can succeed only if Influence is present. It’s that mysterious ‘only if’ that makes all the difference in the gentle revolution. [1]

Like you, Hannah wondered how she could change things if it would take a very long time. ‘If the gentle revolution means changing my entire company and perhaps other companies too—healing entire forests—how can I create trees or teams that are capable of sustaining such major change? The gentle revolution might be a very long‑term undertaking. I would have to find highly motivated groups of people committed to making an extended and difficult journey.’ Hannah began to see that finding and shaping humanly sensitive teams to collaborate with the Yes‑world was the work of a lifetime, perhaps even her own life’s work!

And so Neil, I come back to your original question. Organizations change and people come and go, so can the gentle revolution persist? Incredible long-lived persistence arises when a group led by an innocent fool begins to understand its ultimate purpose. Unless people believe the team’s contribution to the world is of the highest importance and is in a way more important than the team itself, their energy will gradually erode and the gentle revolution will eventually die out in the organization.

So, at some point the team begins to focus on a moral choice. We can use our energy and knowledge in service of strictly short-term economic ends or we can also serve human ends. There is a big difference between the two. One treats people as objects intended for economic or political ends, period. The other challenges the inhumane use of power because every person, no matter how insignificant, is of lasting value. When they adopt the latter view, a team begins to take on an additional risk in their journey—achieving both the group’s assigned organizational tasks and supporting the fundamental belief they share in the ultimate value of human beings.

Unfortunately, teams can also decide to serve purely economical or politically focused purposes rather than human needs. After all, each of us is free to decide what to do with our energies and who to serve with our efforts. Therefore, teams can also be the primary source of amplifying the power of the status quo or the evil system, and indeed most teams are doing so today. This is why the gentle revolution always involves a search for wisdom and moral choice.

I think the term ‘community’ rather than ‘team’ is a better description for groups who are focused on human values. (If I was bolder, Neil, I would say focused on love.) Together with the Yes‑world, communities create powerful, very long lasting Influence. With this as their focus diverse human beings, each with their own unique purpose, each on their own journey, create deep bonds within a community that can endure and carry them toward a larger purpose that may even lie beyond their own lifetime.

As a final point, think again about Hannah’s metaphor. How can we tell if a forest is healthy? By looking at its results. Are the trees growing, and is the forest thriving? The same holds for organizations. If an organization competes successfully and survives it must have a number of relatively healthy groups. But this is too narrow a description for organizational health. The organization’s growth may still serve only economic or political purposes, so how can we recognize truly healthy organizations that also serve human values?

As part of the gentle revolution I propose that organizations begin to use a second test for health in addition to economic success. Wise leaders must require each community in their organization to use its own value system to determine whether it’s becoming a ‘healthy tree’ as judged by its own standards. Communities must be free to hold up ethical ideals and standards for themselves, measure their actions and results against these, and take corrective actions based on their own judgments. The community needs to have conversations about how much progress they have made toward their ideals. Both the economic and ethical tests of health would give communities their organizational ‘report card.’ Communities would report to leaders on how well they have progressed on their ethical journey and also how well they have performed against the other organizational tasks.

Neil, my vision is that in being faithful to their ethical standards the people in that community, in the wider organization, and in the outside world experience a tiny bit of healing of the wounds in our culture and a lessening of systematic evil. Obviously, if an entire organization gets to the point where it holds up ethical standards and measures itself against them, and safeguards human values no matter what, then this would go a long way toward healing the world on a much larger scale. That’s the ultimate purpose of the gentle revolution.


[1] This isn’t a new idea. Buddhists call it ‘being aware and mindful,’ and the Jesuits call it ‘reflective action.’ Even the Green Movement is based on ‘Thinking Globally; Acting Locally.’ These emphasize the fundamental human desire to create good; not only for oneself, but for the entire world.