Have you been inspired by the excitement of street protests that
swept through Seattle, D.C., Prague, Philly and L.A.? Want to make
those corporations take notice? Want to feel the energy, irreverence
and fun of the coolest global movement since blue jeans? Then Gary
Hamel's Leading the Revolution just might be for you. A no-holds-
barred, practical handbook for revolutionaries, visionaries and
activists, this book teaches the nuts and bolts of building coalitions,
writing a manifesto and picking targets for a campaign. But watch
out: Hamel won't let you rest easy in your armchair. "One person,
one vote represents not the full ideal of democracy, but its most
minimal precondition. If you exercise the rights of citizenship
only once every four years, at the polling station, can you really
claim to be a citizen?" Democracy means activists redirecting society
toward their ideals--"be it feminism, environmentalism, [or] racial
One hitch before you ask for it at your local book co-op. The jacket
promises this to be "An action plan--indeed, an incendiary device"
that will "ignite the passions of entry-level assistants, neophyte
managers, seasoned VPs, CEOs." Those corporations took notice of
the street protests, all right, and decided they were too exciting
not to rip off. So steal this book they did. "Activists are the
coolest people on the planet," Hamel recognizes, which is dandy
as long as he can quietly redefine "activists" to mean people who
work extra hard at their job.
This Wall Street Journal bestseller assures readers that
it's every bit as exciting--hell, every bit as
ennobling--to be the employee that convinces Sony to design a new
audio chip as it is to desegregate buses or liberate South Africa.
This is the sexiest thing that's happened to engineers since they
stopped carrying slide rules in their pockets: One minute, they're
the ultimate cog in the wheel, the next minute, they're revolutionaries
rubbing elbows with Hamel's role models: Nelson Mandela, Rosa Parks,
Vaclav Havel, and the founders of Amnesty International and Greenpeace.
Revolutionaries or corporate motivators? "These are people who change
the world. And you can't change your own company? Give me a break."
The book fires up readers with a practical guide on "how to start
an insurrection." First you write a manifesto; Thomas Paine's work
during the American Revolution is a good guide. Then you build a
coalition to maximize your influence, just like "a labor union organizing
a strike." Does "pick your targets ... co-opt and neutralize" sound
like veteran organizer Saul Alinsky's "pick the target, freeze it,
personalize it and polarize it"? It should. Hamel calls Alinsky's
Rules for Radicals a "classic." Likewise, "winning small"
in the beginning to build momentum might as well have come from
an ACORN community organizers' handbook. If executives have paid
any attention to the protesters at their doors, they should already
know Hamel's game plan. We've been running it against them for years.
What's hardest to swallow after reading the book is not that the
counterculture has been ripped off yet again, with no royalties
paid, or that the determination of environmentalists is presented
as inspiration for corporations seeking to extend their dominance
over the planet. The tough part is considering the possibility that
there's something in here for progressives to steal back and profit
from. OK, not much. Leading the Revolution mainly consists
of some radical lingo ladled over the same lukewarm hash that's
been sold in trendy business books for years. (The formula is for
the head of a consulting firm, like Hamel, to write a book that
tantalizes potential corporate clients into paying for the full
story.) Personally, what I want to adopt is the business world's
ability to print whole books in full color with hip graphics. Beyond
that, it's time to put corporate platitudes about empowerment into
action for ourselves.
Hamel's claims that smart businesses "let youth be heard," "listen
to the periphery," and "let newcomers have their say" are hype that
hide corporate hierarchies. But plenty of good, hardworking NGOs
don't use the ideas and innovations of most of their people, either.
For starters, groups could try out Hamel's suggestion that half
the attendees at the next strategy meeting be people who have never
been to one before. Next consider the promise that business makes
whenever it talks about workplace "teams" or when Hamel proposes
"listening to new voices." They're talking about people having a
real say in what their employer is doing. They're talking about
workplace democracy. While Hamel, like progressives, recognizes
the payoff of giving people a real voice, that's one strategy corporate
America can never use. But a genuine, carefully crafted system of
workplace democracy could produce for progressive organizations
a wellspring of creative new strategies, successful projects and
Back in the corporate world, the next step would be to follow the
advice of Hamel's pal Saul Alinsky, and hold companies to their
promises. They want suggestions on improving the workplace? Great.
Self-managing teams? Here we come. An end to old workplace hierarchies?
Couldn't agree more. And a revolution from within the corporation?
I'm so there.
I'm not sure that Nelson Mandela, Rosa Parks and Martin Luther
King would be the ideal employees Hamel imagines them to be. But
they sure would be fun to sit next to during employee "empowerment"
To get in touch with the authentic revolutionary vanguard,
Greg Smithsimon has temped at management consulting firms.