“We cannot build a new country with the old thinking.…” – The Big Daddy of all Change Stories, the Collapse of the Soviet Union
We cannot build a new country with the old thinking.…
(from the Institute of Contemporary Development, a liberal think tank chaired by President Dmitry Medvedev, in a document that looked like a platform for the 2012 Russian presidential election)
So, let me make one thing clear. You come at us with whatever weapons that you have in your arsenal, but there is no weapon as powerful as that of an idea whose time has come.
(Fictional President Jackson Evans Addresses Congress on VP Nominee, Senator Laine Hanson — from the movie, The Contender)
This is about the change story that is the big daddy of all change stories. You want to talk about change? – Now this is change!
We all know the need for change. Any company, any organization, intent on doing things the way they’ve always done them is in a newly dangerous precarious position. The 21st century will not wait for these slow adapters. It is, truly, change or die.
But, change or die might not be enough of a phrase – it might be, change, die, and be reborn. Maybe it is destruct to a different (hopefully better) future.
The list of companies and organizations that failed to change fast enough is substantial, and continues to grow. Yahoo is in trouble. MySpace is basically history. Blockbuster Video is bankrupt, joining other relics of the past such as Montgomery Ward (which created the first mail order catalogue), and Circuit City, now no longer great (Circuit City was one of the “Good to Great” exemplars of Jim Collins, which is partly why he wrote How the Mighty Fall).
But these stories pale in significance to the biggest of the big disappearing. The Soviet Union disappeared in the blink of an eye. And though you can point to a lot of “catalysts,” (Americans, especially conservatives, want to give the credit to “Tear Down This Wall” Ronald Reagan), the real hero was Mikhail Gorbachev, and the people who were simply ready to say, and demand!, that the time had come.
In a remarkable essay in Foreign Policy, Everything You Think You Know About the Collapse of the Soviet Union Is Wrong (And why it matters today in a new age of revolution) by Leon Aron, we learn a great deal about why this happened. The article is absolutely worth reading in its entirety. Here are some key excerpts:
Every revolution is a surprise. Still, the latest Russian Revolution must be counted among the greatest of surprises. In the years leading up to 1991, virtually no Western expert, scholar, official, or politician foresaw the impending collapse of the Soviet Union, and with it one-party dictatorship, the state-owned economy, and the Kremlin’s control over its domestic and Eastern European empires. Neither, with one exception, did Soviet dissidents nor, judging by their memoirs, future revolutionaries themselves. When Mikhail Gorbachev became general secretary of the Communist Party in March 1985, none of his contemporaries anticipated a revolutionary crisis. Although there were disagreements over the size and depth of the Soviet system’s problems, no one thought them to be life-threatening, at least not anytime soon…
Certainly, there were plenty of structural reasons — economic, political, social — why the Soviet Union should have collapsed as it did, yet they fail to explain fully how it happened when it happened. How, that is, between 1985 and 1989, in the absence of sharply worsening economic, political, demographic, and other structural conditions, did the state and its economic system suddenly begin to be seen as shameful, illegitimate, and intolerable by enough men and women to become doomed? (emphasis added).
The core of Gorbachev’s enterprise was undeniably idealistic: He wanted to build a more moral Soviet Union.
For though economic betterment was their banner, there is little doubt that Gorbachev and his supporters first set out to right moral, rather than economic, wrongs.Most of what they said publicly in the early days of perestroika now seems no more than an expression of their anguish over the spiritual decline and corrosive effects of the Stalinist past. It was the beginning of a desperate search for answers to the big questions with which every great revolution starts: What is a good, dignified life? What constitutes a just social and economic order? What is a decent and legitimate state? What should such a state’s relationship with civil society be?
One needs only to spend a few days in Moscow talking to the intelligentsia or, better yet, to take a quick look at the blogs on LiveJournal (Zhivoy Zhurnal), Russia’s most popular Internet platform, or at the sites of the top independent and opposition groups to see that the motto of the 1980s — “We cannot live like this any longer!” — is becoming an article of faith again. The moral imperative of freedom is reasserting itself, and not just among the limited circles of pro-democracy activists and intellectuals. This February, the Institute of Contemporary Development, a liberal think tank chaired by President Dmitry Medvedev, published what looked like a platform for the 2012 Russian presidential election:
In the past Russia needed liberty to live [better]; it must now have it in order to survive.… The challenge of our times is an overhaul of the system of values, the forging of new consciousness. We cannot build a new country with the old thinking.… The best investment [the state can make in man] is Liberty and the Rule of Law. And respect for man’s Dignity.
It was the same intellectual and moral quest for self-respect and pride that, beginning with a merciless moral scrutiny of the country’s past and present, within a few short years hollowed out the mighty Soviet state, deprived it of legitimacy, and turned it into a burned-out shell that crumbled in August 1991. The tale of this intellectual and moral journey is an absolutely central story of the 20th century’s last great revolution.
Here are some lessons for all business leaders and thinkers:
Lesson #1 – when it is time to change, really time, the change will come, whether you want it to, whether you are ready for it, or not.
Lesson #2 – it takes a leader to say, and act on, what the people themselves are thinking to help make it happen. Both of these are critical – the leader has to really, really listen to the heartbeat of the people he/she leads. And, the leader has to act on what he hears.
Lesson #3 – it takes a leader to base his/her leadership on the values he holds dear, and for those values, and the values of the vast majority of the people, to be the same, at the same time. Gorbachev was a moral man. The people were ready to act from this new moral core. The time had come.
Lesson #4 – And, it takes the right idea. Words like perestroika, glasnost, democratization… these are not empty words, or words that are simply reserved for and consigned to philosophy classes. They are the very foundation for change. “There is no weapon as powerful as that of an idea whose time has come.” Here is the key paragraph from the article:
“A new moral atmosphere is taking shape in the country,” Gorbachev told the Central Committee at the January 1987 meeting where he declared glasnost — openness — and democratization to be the foundation of his perestroika, or restructuring, of Soviet society. “A reappraisal of values and their creative rethinking is under way.” Later, recalling his feeling that “we couldn’t go on like that any longer, and we had to change life radically, break away from the past malpractices,” he called it his “moral position.”
This article provides a great overview of the most monumental of societal changes. I suspect that it gives us all a lot to ponder, whether we are hoping for change in our little corner of the world, or dream of the bigger changes we all need to pursue, embrace, and then help make happen.