Culture change – what there is to learn from Maya Angelou

Culture change – what there is to learn from Maya Angelou

The writer and activist Mayo Angelou, who died this week aged 86, was an extraordinary human being. She overcame abuse and allsorts of hardships; she was an important figure in the civil rights movement, working with Martin Luther King among others; and her book I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings made her a spokesperson for both African Americans and women. In 1994 Bill Clinton invited her to read one of her poems at his inauguration, the first time a president had given a poet centre stage since John F Kennedy.

Maya’s death got me thinking about what it takes to influence people in the way she did. It happened in the same week that voters across Europe expressed their disillusionment with how the EU was being led, either voting for extreme anti-Europe parties or abstaining completely. And in a week in which I was kicking off a major cultural transformation project for a client.

The management guru Peter Drucker, famously said: “Culture eats strategy for breakfast”, recognising the critical role culture plays in influencing peoples behaviour and actions – be it in a business or a country. Give this it surprises me how little attention many leaders give to really understanding how cultures work. Culture change is often approached like IT implementations, with legions of people engaged in massive structured top-down change programs. The results so often is that nothing changes, or if it does change, it soon changes back. In the case of Europe, politicians seem to think that all that needs to be done is to explain yourself and people will follow. As this weeks results show, not only is this incorrect, it actually has them turn against you.

Which is why there’s a lot to be learnt from Maya Angelou. Maya was part of one of the most astonishing cultural transformations of the last hundred years – what started as the Civil Rights Movement and catalyzed a shift in western values that is still working through today.

What Maya instinctively knew, as did Martin Luther King, was the means to bring about change is not top down but from the ground up, and not by explaining yourself but by engaging with peoples hearts and souls.

This is where the European Union has gone wrong. Mainstream European politicians talk a lot, but the feeling they leave most of population with is a sense of frustration, boredom and resignation. They have forgotten what Napoleon said: “A leader is a dealer in hope.”

Cultural change is not a logical process, it is an emotional one. The terms ‘vision’ and ‘mission’ have become devalued in many places as they have come to means words written on bits of paper in workshops. A real vision though isn’t a bunch of words, it is something authentic and real that people can and do connect with at an emotional level. A real mission is not a pithy statement but something that moves people to act.

Learning how to generate a sense of genuine hope and new possibility is the most important capability leaders need to develop if they want to bring about profound and lasting change.

What Maya Angelou's passing reminded me was that the catalyst for change isn't what you say, but how you make people feel.