|Piazza del Mercato During the Revolt of Masaniello by Domenico Gargiulo, 1647 (public domain - Wikimedia Commons)|
"Give me liberty or give me death!"
— Patrick Henry, 1775
Rebellion is a strange thing. It conjures up the image of an underdog fighting an unjust power. And yet, the word implies a considerable resistance that is often unsuccessful.
A teen going head to head with a parent (a battle of wills). The Confederacy seceding from the Union (we know how that turned out). The Rebel Alliance standing up to the Galactic Empire (they never seem to completely outdo them).
Now consider revolution.
There seems to be a bit more majesty about the word. It implies a larger movement than a rebellion. Actions may be rebellious, but ideas can be revolutionary.
That concept is rooted in the very origins of the word. Taken from the Latin revolvere, meaning "to revolve, to roll back," the word revolution was initially associated with astronomy and celestial bodies. Copernicus made the connection in On the Revolutions of Heavenly Spheres (1543).
Stars and planets make recurring cyclical movements, or revolutions, around a particular point. This is what allowed astronomers to make observations and predictions, that were bolstered by or helped to improve mathematics.
In On Revolution in 1963, Hannah Arendt likened it to "the ups and downs of human destiny, which have been likened to the rising and setting of sun, moon, and stars since times immemorial."
In other words, humans are predictable; what's past is prologue.
Heather Cox Richardson, a history professor and author, perfectly laid out the cycles of unrest and inequality we've endured in the last 170 years or so in her March 7, 2020 update:
"When our lack of government oversight of the economy leads to the rise of extremely wealthy people who take over our political system and use it to promote their own interests, a crisis lays bare the misuse of the government for the rich. Americans then rise up and insist on an active government that protects the equality of opportunity on which our democracy depends. Three times before now, we have played out this pattern."
At the moment, we're seeing protests on statehouse steps around the country, where people are objecting to stay-at-home orders and social distancing. On the one hand, it's easy to understand frustration with being homebound and having to abide by restrictive guidelines when 'Muricans are so individualistic.
At the same time, it seems that these individuals are protesting for…their right to catch the virus?
It's almost as if they've assumed some twisted embodiment of Patrick Henry: "Give me liberty AND give me death!"
This completely turns on its head what we discussed last month ("Pulling Together—Separately") regarding a person's ability to put aside his own interests, and instead show concern for the fortune of others.
"In revolutions everything is forgotten. The benefits you confer today are forgotten tomorrow. The side once changed, gratitude, friendship, parentage, every tie vanishes, and all that is sought for is self-interest."
— Napoleon Bonaparte, 1816
What we've seen in recent days is the perfect expression of what Lewis Lapham called "the policy of enlightened selfishness and the signature bourgeois passion for more plums in the pudding." ("Crowd Control") To watch it play out on television, you would think that the tide is rising and the masses are leading a great revolution.
In fact, a recent survey from Navigator Research showed that only 9 percent of respondents think that social distancing measures need to be relaxed, while 52 percent consider that we're doing the right thing, and 35 percent think we need even more aggressive measures.
It really makes you wonder what those protesters think will happen if they get what they want.
"When the people contend for their liberty, they seldom get anything by their victory but new masters."
— George Savile, marquess of Halifax, 1750
They'll be able to go fishing and seed their lawns, go to the movies and restaurants (which should be great, since the CDC found evidence of COVID-19 spreading in restaurants via air conditioning), and get back to bowling. Not to mention that the director of the CDC yesterday said we should prepare for a winter spike of the virus.
And then what? We'll be back to another cycle of staying at home. As George III taunted in Hamilton ("What Comes Next?"), "What comes next? / You’ve been freed. / Do you know how hard it is to lead?"
The remarkable thing about the situation we're in right now is the sudden ability of companies to support remote working and alternative business models. It makes you wonder what they've been resisting all along.
In my experience, the push for digital transformation has usually come from small pockets within a company: an innovation team, a digital marketing lead, or perhaps the CEO. But large organizations are filled with middle managers who are comfortable doing business they way they've always done and won't deign to disrupt the system. There's always more resistance to change than the perceived need for change.
"Revolutions cannot, or rather can no longer, be accomplished by a minority. A revolutionary minority, no matter how intelligent and energetic, is not enough, in modern societies at least, to bring about a revolution. The cooperation and adhesion of a majority, and an immense majority, is needed."
— Jean Jaurès, 1901
If we were to survey employees and ask who led digital transformation at their company, would they say it was the CEO? Or maybe the CTO?
More likely than not, they'd say the digital transformation revolution was led by COVID-19.
That doesn’t make it any less real; in fact, it's probably more so, as it's everyone's reality for the foreseeable future. And once we've experienced some of these conveniences, we're less likely to want to completely return to our previous habits.
Now, whether at home or within our organizations, we have a different set of complexities to deal with. Just like advances humans have made in agriculture, industry, entertainment, medicine, transportation and more, we have more options rather than fewer.
The burden we have to bear is the choices we make as leaders, family members and friends amid these options.
"Revolutions have never lightened the burden of tyranny, they have only shifted it to another shoulder."
— George Bernard Shaw, 1903
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This originally appeared in the April 22 issue of the Timeless & Timely newsletter. To see this issue in its entirety, including links, recommended books, and more, please click here. And more Timeless inspiration can be found here.
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