The ouster of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak wasn’t just a political event on far-away soils. It was a sign of the times that unfortunately many executives missed. Others chose to dismiss it. They will be sorry.
If ever there was a time of extraordinary uncertainty, we are living in it today. In the last four decades, we have seen the rise of the Internet and the explosion of information technologies. Much to the chagrin of millions of overwhelmed people, this data deluge isn’t cyclical but exponential. If you are a manager or company owner, probably the greatest challenge you face is positioning your company to address the tsunami of change that is upon us.
We are now on the cutting edge of a social revolution that neither business executives nor political leaders can control. We are looking at the convergence of the aging Baby Boomer and Mature generations with the Millennials – the largest U.S. and global cohort ever to inhabit this earth. President Barack Obama’s election just a little over two years ago gave us a sneak peek into how a social and political movement can leverage social media to successfully influence an outcome. Mubarak’s ouster opened a new chapter.
It provided us an extended glimpse about how a new generation will initiate social upheavals as well as causes like the environment that are--for the first time in history--
global in scope.
The riots in Chicago during the Democratic National Convention in 1968 made international news but remained an isolated domestic event. The Tiananmen Square demonstrations in China 20 years later again caught the attention of a global audience until the government eventually shut down outbound communication. They momentarily kept their response local when they silenced the protestors. But the cat was out of the proverbial bag and soon after, people began to demonstrate on the streets of eastern European countries. Only six months later the Berlin Wall fell down, and 12 months later, the Soviet Union was gone. The events that unraveled in Egypt over the past two weeks demonstrate how local demonstrations – once easily contained by government and media - can go global almost instantly and dramatically shape social upheavals. It took 5 years for the young adult Baby Boomers to force an end to the war in Vietnam, less than a year for students to accelerate if not force the fall of communism, and under 2 weeks for a relatively peaceful youth-led protest to oust a powerful and intransigent leader.
Embedded in these events are four powerful lessons for leaders in business.
1. When people complain, listen. Management and political leaders must not be lulled into thinking that “Father Knows Best;” that protests, demonstrations, and just plain old negative comments are the result of youthful energy and disrespect for tried and true traditions; and that today’s youth will eventually come to their senses and accept the world the way it is or was. That’s not – I repeat N-O-T – going to happen. Many companies ignore the complaints of customers, employees, or business partners because, after all, you can’t please everyone. When executives plug their ears, they make the same mistake as the Mubarak. You may be able to stifle or ignore complaints for a long time. But eventually customer displeasure can grow strong enough to compel people to strike back. Lesson Learned: The Millennial generation is a force to be reckoned with.
2. Don’t confuse dissent with adversity. While the Boomers disagreed on nearly everything with their parents—clothes, hair styles, politics, values, and music, Gen Ys enjoy their parents as people. Young Baby Boomers in the 60s built a defiant counterculture. In contrast, many Millennials call out their parents as their “bff” (in text lingo, a “best friend forever.”) Mobarek as a man wasn’t the enemy. It was his policies and leadership style. The Egyptian youth weren’t ousting the government but the people running it. Lesson Learned: If the Millennials don’t respect you or support your cause, they now have the power to do something about it.
3. Followership is the new norm in leadership; partnership is the new business strategy. While the Gen Ys may not be challenging their parents as people, they certainly are challenging the institutions the Boomers are running. They disrupted the 2008 Presidential race by participating in Barack Obama’s utilization of social networks to overwhelm Democratic frontrunner Hilary Clinton and later negate the experienced Veteran John McCain. They’ve disrupted the music industry with Napster and iTunes. Unlike the Baby Boomers who clashed with the military in the 60s, Chinese students who clashed with the military in the 80s, the Egyptian students and the military partnered with each other. The students didn’t have a beef with the military. In fact, they had a common goal – respect and dignity for all the Egyptian people, not just those in power. They weren’t enemies in the protest but allies. Lesson Learned: If a youth-led but leader-less protest can peacefully overthrow an established government, a company’s brand and/or strategy can be easily toppled.
4. The Internet changed everything. Social media is not a fad but a communication revolution. The new Web 2.0 is distributing power and democratizing the economy. The Google executive who launched the Facebook page said to have sparked the original protest said: “If you want to liberate a country, give them the Internet.” Technology is the air that young people breathe and it is beginning to leave more experienced workers gasping. The voice of one can almost instantly be heard by a billion people. The mere volume of information and speed at which it flows is overwhelming. Author Don Tapscott described what’s happening:
“People no longer have to follow the leaders and do what they’re told. Now they can organize themselves, publish themselves, inform themselves, and share with their friends —without waiting for an authority to instruct them. This unprecedented access to power has already rocked the music and newspaper industries and it will roll over and through every other world this generation enters.”
The information highway and especially social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter allowed a generation to take what seemed like a local protest and transform it quickly into a global public forum. Wael Ghonim, the Google exec, tweeted, “Revolution can be a #Facebook event that is liked, shared & tweeted.” A TechCrunch article asserts that the revolution was about the Internet as a whole. When the government attempted to shut down the Internet, people worldwide pulled together cell phones, home phones, Facebook, and other methods like Google and Twitter’s collaborative phone-to-twitter application to “essentially create the largest flashmob ever.” Al Jazeera employed YouTube to make its coverage available to U.S. audiences. The news was filtered by or through the government or media. We saw it as it happened. Lesson Learned: You can’t control the Internet, just learn to manage and leverage the information available through it.
The Millennials are now entering the workplace (or at least trying despite high unemployment). They are ready to take on traditional corporate hierarchy and many established precedents. The Millennial generation won’t follow the “it’s us against the world” road. Instead after years of playing digital games and networking online, many Millennials are experts at visioning outcomes, working collaboratively, and rallying quickly and impressively for a cause. Egypt, and earlier Iran during their demonstration in 2009, couldn’t shut down the Internet.
With all that has happened in the last few weeks, every leader needs to ask these 3 questions:
- What human resources policies do you have in place that ignores or dismisses the Milllennial generation?
- What strategies and business practices do you have in place that will engage the Millennial generation?
- What makes you think they can shut down the Internet during working hours and survive?
Staying power doesn’t come from trying to pin everything down. Instead, it is the result of listening, flexibility and responsiveness.