I read a story this past week that reinforced an important lesson of leadership. Let me tell you that story and then help us all incorporate this lesson into our lives.
Probably since your early school days, you’ve heard the story of Rosa Parks, the courageous African-American lady who refused to give up her seat to a white person and move to the rear of a Montgomery bus in 1955. Her actions led to huge social action and change.
I was reading that story again in Douglas Brinkley’s Rosa Parks, a volume in the Penguin Lives Series. As I did, I saw a fact I had never known before. You see, the same year that Rosa Parks did her courageous deed, three other African-American women had also refused to move from their bus seats to accommodate a white person. Each of those cases went to court but ended up going nowhere.
What made the difference when Rosa Parks decided not to move? The difference was that strategic social action was married to a symbolic act. You see, Rosa Parks was the secretary for the Montgomery chapter of the NAACP. Historians debate whether Parks’ act was planned in advance, but the result was much the same as it would have been had it been planned. When she was charged with disobeying the law, the NAACP sprang into action. Letters were sent. Officials were informed. City and state chapters were alerted around the country. Then, still other organizations and many influential people rallied. News of the resulting protests spread nationwide.
You see the difference? Three women made a symbolic act but with no accompanying strategy. Their names were largely lost to history, as just as their cause was. Rosa Parks wed a symbolic act to strategy and change came. Also, today people all over the country attend schools and walk streets named for Rosa Parks.
Now, in our highly charged world, you are probably engaged in or feel the need to lead your firm in symbolic acts for change. Let me urge you to take it further. If you do a company march or engage in some other symbolic act, wed it to strategy. Wed it to a network and an ongoing effort of social change. This is how to really make a difference.
There is a firm that decided to do a company march for change with the students of a largely black local high school. The members of the firm were eager to get involved but then someone challenged them to marry a symbolic act with an ongoing strategy. Now, the members of that firm are mentoring, creating scholarships, and helping to upgrade the school’s facilities. Already, there is a very impressive computer lab that wasn’t there before. Lives are being changed. Lines are being crossed. Change is happening. Why? Because the firm didn’t settle for a symbolic act alone.
Ponder this. Look at your firm through this lens. How can the Rosa Parks Tactic of wedding symbol with strategy help you make a difference?