What It Takes to Start a Movement

Three leadership traits that inspire

Moses Draws Water from the Rock by Francois Perrier, 1642 (public domain - Wikimedia Commons)

“He will win whose army is animated by the same spirit throughout all its ranks.” — Sun Tzu, 5th century BC

Moving people to action is more difficult than it seems.

Selling something tangible — a product, a widget, a thing — is fairly straightforward. People can see it in action, feel in their hands, and observe the difference it makes. You can craft a story around that and play a bit of show and tell.

But when you have to sell an idea or a vision? That takes more than getting people to pay attention. You need to make them believe.

Belief is a powerful thing. If you can get someone to put faith in what you're saying, such that they'll turn away from what I'll call a pre-existing cognition, you'll have won them over.

It's what was required in the American Revolution, the French Revolution, and so many other uprisings when failure could have easily been proscribed. Instead, leaders marshalled their people behind them by going first, creating hope, and focusing on their people.

“Everyone's got to believe in something. I believe I'll have another beer.” — W.C. Fields

Imagine if you were a person with a speech impediment and questionable self-esteem, and you were tasked with leading half a million people to their freedom. Do you think you'd be up to the task?

Moses certainly didn't at first. And yet, in the book of Exodus, he was called upon to lead his people out of Egypt. What did he do? He had quiet, reflective time and took notes. He shared this notes (on stone tablets) with his people, he showed them the way.

Eventually, Moses delegated authority and shared this vision with his chiefs. But he always demonstrated leadership by being out front and participating, just as he was asking everyone else to do. Leaders go first.

Leaders are prepared to do whatever they ask their people to do.


It's the classic difference between a boss and a leader: the boss says, “Go,” while the leader says, “Let's go.”

Simon Sinek's book Leaders Eat Last may seem to offer countervailing advice, but its title comes from how leaders wait to take care of themselves, giving their people priority. The converse is true when it comes to doing the work.

When you're trying to escape a tyrant or facing various plagues, you need hope. Moses inspired his people, again and again, such as instructing them to mark lamb's blood over their doors to protect their firstborn. When leading his people through the desert, he told stories about the Promised Land and what awaited them at the end of their journey.

Leaders provide hope by focusing positive energy on encouragement, inspiration, and enthusiasm.


Consider another fundamental difference between a boss and a leader: a boss is a subject matter expert while a leader is an expert in managing people. So often, we see subject-matter experts and bureaucrats promoted to leadership positions, when they could benefit from more people skills. (More on this in in next week's update - make sure you’re signed up.)

Moses saw his people defy the first commandment and worship a golden calf. An angry God was ready to exact vengeance on them, but Moses didn't hew to the technicalities at hand; he stood up for his people — reminding God their were His people too — and sought forgiveness. Moses ended up taking responsibility for their actions.

Leaders put their focus on their people.


When you've demonstrated to your people that you're in it with them, have given them hope, and put them first, they'll move mountains for you.

Look at where we are with mask wearing during the pandemic, for example. We've seen countless examples of people in public places who throw tantrums because places of business are requiring them to wear masks. They don't want to have to listen to authority and they claim their Constitutional rights are being violated.

[Aside: I thought we covered this in March. Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness are enshrined in the Declaration of Independence, which predates the Constitution. Life comes first. Not Liberty. Not Happiness. Life. And when your Liberty impacts my Life, you need to rethink things. Please, wear a mask. And get vaccinated.]

Individualism Has No Place in a Pandemic

But maybe we've been going about this insistence on mask wearing the wrong way. Maybe we need to adhere to those three precepts of leadership:

There's no consistency in leaders going first by wearing masks. The simple gesture of wearing a mask would send a powerful message to the public.

Leaders in some states with spiking cases and hospitalizations haven't been providing hope. They've been ignoring the reality of the disease and selling false hope of reopening as if nothing has happened. This is difficult, because it's hard to make a case for hope out of what didn't happen. Perhaps we need to rely on something like this report from Goldman Sachs that says a national mask mandate could save the U.S. economy $1 trillion. That's hopeful.

Naïvely, I thought we were putting people first when the message was that masks protect other people. Sadly, we may need to flip that, to align with how people are acting more selfishly, and tell them that masks protect them. It's a sorry state of affairs when you can't rely on empathy and compassion to convince people to do the right thing.

One final example on movements and believing: in fact, it's the very story that caused me to consider this topic.

The president held a rally in Tulsa the weekend before last, and his campaign chief was seen on social media in the days leading up to the event, bragging about 1,000,000 tickets that the public had reserved for the event. You know how the story ended: with an anemic turnout.

Aside from the entire population of Tulsa being 400,000 people, people were scratching their heads about how the calculation could have been so far off. It turns out Tik Tok fans and K-pop stans took credit for reserving tens of thousands of tickets, effectively sticking their finger in the eye of the establishment.

Such was the example of a grassroots-led movement that was popular enough and gained enough traction in a short period of time to make a difference.

Whether a movement is sparked by a leader, a group, or an idea, it's the vision for what's possible and the associated emotions that help drive success.

Without those, it's inertia.

Credit for the three truths of leadership goes to The Greats on Leadership: Classic Wisdom for Modern Managers by Jocelyn Davis


“Jerry, just remember. It's not a lie if you believe it.” — George Costanza, 1995


There’s a growing movement by brands to send a message to Facebook by boycotting their ad spend. (Social Fresh)


If brands are hopping on the boycott wagon, Josh Sternberg writes that companies also need to gaze inward and assess their own values. (The Media Nut)


TikTok users aren’t just stopping at scooping up event tickets. They’re also abandoning e-shopping carts en masse on Trump online stores in an effort to make the campaign waste more money. (AdWeek)


“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world: indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” — Margaret Mead, 1978


When politics and literature meet, “the novel as a form allows a good writer with views to resist the temptation to simply and straightforwardly promote them. Bad or lesser writers are unable to resist that temptation. Likewise, readers who are unable to read without demanding a comforting echo of their own beliefs will have no real feeling for the rigors and inflections of serious fiction.” (Lapham's Quarterly)


A fascinating thread that tells the story of one forward-thinking individual who co-opted the talents of hundreds of fans to create a site for nerds. “It turns out that when you strike a nerve, people are willing to do anything for a mission they believe in. Here are a couple excerpts from emails we reviewed back then. If you are a nerd like me, these will be some of the greatest resumes you will ever see.” (Twitter)


Have you ever seen this equation? D x V x F > R
The D stands for dissatisfaction, V stands for vision, F stands for first steps, and R is resistance. It's the Beckhard-Harris Change Equation, a simplified way of analyzing the potential success or failure of a change initiative within the workplace. In order to overcome resistance, the multiple of the other factors must exceed it. (BusinessBalls)

Recommended Reading / Listening

🎧 The John Maxwell Leadership Podcast is a regular examination of what it means to be a transformational leader—someone who daily influences people to think, speak, and act to make a positive difference in their lives and in the lives of others. This podcast will teach you the principles, practices, and process of becoming a transformational leader because leadership isn’t an event—it’s an uphill journey. Every week we will offer a free tool to help you on this journey, so let leadership authority Dr. John C. Maxwell show you the way.

📘 Just because you need a break from too much heady stuff. The very best of world art from cave paintings to Neoexpressionism. Iconic must-see works, such as Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper and Monet’s Waterlilies and less familiar artists and genres from all parts of the globe. Art That Changed the World covers the full sweep of world art, including the Ming era in China, and Japanese, Hindu, and Indigenous Australian art. It analyses recurring themes such as love and religion, explaining key genres from Romanesque to Conceptual art.

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