Lessons from the Street

A lot of what sustainability leaders do in companies is about making connections – between people in different silos who should be working together, between EBITDA-syndrome and its collateral consequences, or between the daily grind and longer-term purpose.

A few weeks ago I met a leader at the Saïd Business School in Oxford who made a powerful connection for me, and gave me unexpected insight into what we do at New Angles.

Slobodan Djinovic has had an interesting life. With Srdja Popovic and a small group of other students he led the Otpor! protest movement in Serbia that played an important role in toppling the Milosevic regime in the October 2000 revolution. That popular uprising inspired others in Georgia and Ukraine.

Otpor! used no weapons other than the photocopier and the mobile phone, against opponents who could and did call on the army and the national police to beat up the protesters in the street and throw them repeatedly in jail. Djinovic was imprisoned more than once. Yet the movement brought tens of thousands of people into the streets in Belgrade on a daily basis for over 100 days and achieved its aims with a speed and an economy of means that astonished diplomats and UN experts at the time.

Djinovic and other leaders of the Serbian revolution later set up Canvas, which has advised many popular movements around the world on how to mobilise large numbers of people to engage in nonviolent protest for regime change. Canvas has its roots in subversion but has recently embraced the mainstream, sending Djinovic to teach activism strategies at Harvard and NYU Stern – temples of the liberal establishment. The irony of this is not lost on him.

Listening in fascination to Slobodan Djinovic’s story in Oxford last month with my fellow members of the Change Leader’s Network, I suddenly found myself taking notes. His and his companions’ courageous struggle for political justice and freedom might seem a million miles away from consulting to companies on business model transformation, but Djinovic’s words made the connection clear for me, in a way that demanded action.

Let’s admit it. Business-as-usual companies can be oppressive, dehumanising places. Power at the top, disengagement below. A senseless pursuit of short-term financial goals that serve to enrich a handful of people – whom we never see eating at the canteen! There are many working in business who refuse to subscribe to that sort of system, even though often they feel they have no choice but to stay in it. And some of them work actively to change it from the inside. They are corporate activists, positive impact pioneers with a deep need to make sense of what they do, and to connect with others in order to make a difference.

Djinovic’s strategies and maxims can work for Impact Pioneers as well as they work for protestors on the street. Use patience to surprise the regime in power. Focus on recruitment. Never centralise, it makes you an easy target. Map the positioning of the key forces in society over time – are they for the regime, or open to your cause? Choose those who are most open to mobilise first. Never attack a pillar of the regime frontally. Wait for the moment when those close to the regime start to lose their certainties, then recruit them too. Unity, tight planning, nonviolent discipline – these were the tactical secrets of Djinovic’s success. But the most important weapon of all was a powerful vision of tomorrow. Otpor! was not working to topple Milosevic. They were working to build the Serbia of the future that everyone wanted to live in.