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Political upheaval: the corporate lessons

The political upheaval in North Africa and the Middle East is demonstrating on a grand scale how groups of dissatisfied people can unite to overthrow autocratic leaders (although Colonel Gaddafi might disagree). What happens in the world of politics often has parallels in organisational life and the monumental change we are witnessing is something that we as business leaders can learn from.

Although it is widely accepted in today's organisations that autocratic leadership is much less effective than collaborative leadership, many organisations are still run on a command and control basis.

Although numerous studies have suggested autocratic leadership disengages people, undermines morale and damages productivity, there are many leaders who continue to adopt an authoritarian style. For these people, leadership is a single-minded pursuit. They don't listen to others or welcome feedback. Just as political leadership in countries such as Egypt was really autocracy disguised as a democracy, command and control organisations tend to present themselves as something quite different and altogether more positive. However, as the ousting of presidents in Tunisia and Egypt, and the unrest in Libya demonstrate, people are increasingly reluctant to accept authoritarianism. They are more likely than ever to seize opportunities to rise against it and unite to make their voices heard. Autocracy relies on withholding information.

Many of us have seen organisations where information is used as a form of control rather than a useful tool for productivity. Social networking and modern communication methods make it increasingly difficult for leaders to hold back information. In North Africa and the Middle East, Twitter, Facebook, email and text messaging have helped both to galvanise people and to communicate with the outside world. We can see that that this type of mass communication is difficult to control. Disenchanted people in any organisation can and do broadcast dissatisfaction easily, affecting reputations and morale.

These recent events reveal graphically the need for and challenge of 'letting go' of total control and allowing others to share ownership in their nation's (or organisation's) vision, strategy and values. When people feel engaged, they are more likely to be committed to the cause, bring strategy to life and really go the extra mile to achieve strategic goals. They are also more likely to become enthusiastic advocates, spreading enthusiasm inside and outside. This boosts motivation and results in increased productivity and real bottom-line benefits.

The process of 'letting go' can be a difficult one. Oppressed people in many countries are making their voices heard. However, turning popular revolution into lasting reform requires sustained effort. This demands an environment where people can associate freely, speak their minds and form opinions without fear. For example, Egypt's Ghad Party has suggested that rather than rely on military leadership in the short term, the country should have a representative presidential council made up of civilian and military leaders. This could help actively engage a wider range of stakeholders in Egypt's future. Revolutions do not tend to come with an operational plan. However, dramatic organisational change can. To maintain momentum, people need to remain engaged. People do want leadership - but they want to have a say in how leaders are chosen. They want leaders who will listen, reflect their desires and values, and be open and honest. They want to be connected to their leaders and to engage in two-way dialogue.

The violent upheaval and loss of life we are seeing in North Africa and the Middle East represent a much more painful route to change than any organisation will ever face and the last thing I want to do is belittle the experience of Tunisia, Egypt and Libya by comparing it too closely to the corporate world. However, the situation in these countries is an example of the sort of people power that leaders and organisations across the globe should pay close attention to. There is great power from acting in unison rather than from the top down and our challenge is how best to embrace it for the mutual benefit of all our stakeholders.

Simon Hayward (pictured) is founder and managing partner at leadership development consultancy Cirrus