THE BLOG
02/26/2014 09:50 am ET Updated Apr 28, 2014

How to Start a Revolution

If "revolution" conjures images of heads rolling and mass hysteria, then you might not appreciate the subtleties inherent in the enterprise. Revolutions are not always bloody rebellions. Some revolutions unfold like natural phenomena, as when some catalyst under the surface creates a sudden shift and causes an industry or society to erupt. The ripple effect is disruptive, but it can also be generative, leading to reform and renewal.

In essence, "revolution" signifies an idea whose time has come.

Following the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King, Jr.'s assassination and the recent death of Nelson Mandela, who served 27 years in a South African prison in the fight against apartheid, we are reminded why so few people are willing to take on changing the world. If you really throw yourself into cultural transformation, you'll go without, go broke and get broken more often than you will win.

However, if knowing this, you are still bent on turning your idea into a movement, then history's great change agents have left you some clues for getting there. Here's a resource-packed retrospective of nine mental checkpoints you'll need to clear along the revolutionary road:

1. Motivation. Motives are solidified during times of suffering rather than success. Great instigators may celebrate milestones on a stage, but TED talks rarely reveal the personal crisis that usually precedes a breakthrough.

Motives don't always have to be "pure" (some ego may be involved), but they must be true. That is, your motives must be justifiable and shared by others who will benefit from your leadership, but who may lack your voice and conviction. Do some work on yourself to get clear on your motives, because they are the rudder to your vessel, and they will only be amplified as you gain more visibility (remember Sarah Palin? Enough said.)

2. Message. A message is more than raw information; it is inspiration. Crafting a compelling message is like packaging inspiration. Successful marketers are schooled in cognitive linguistics, the study of how the brain interprets language. To learn more about the art and science of framing your message, check out my interview with George Lakoff, UC Berkeley professor and cognitive linguist.

3. Messenger. The messenger is as important as the message. Your actions project as much as your words do. Quiet traits of competence, consistency and tenacity will be as vital to your mission as public displays of confidence and style. To become a more effective conduit for your message, proceed to the next step.

4. Magnetism. Enthusiasm. -- the etymology of the word literally means "God within." It's one element of charisma, the ability to attract, charm and influence the people around you. Either you have it or you don't, but anyone can cultivate a little bit more of it. Transformational leadership teaches us how to inspire others to achieve more than they could imagine for themselves. Start by living and leading by example.

5. Mode. Right motives, a clear message and an effectual leader constitute the seeds of a revolution, but it usually takes a seminal work (a speech, a book, an essay) to convey your message in sufficient depth and context to ignite action. Some great examples of revolutionary communication are MLK Jr.'s Letter from Birmingham Jail, Steve Jobs' Stanford Commencement speech and Jerry Maguire's Mission Statement (a fictional exemplar of rhetorical greatness). If you haven't begun already, it's time to start writing and speaking.

6. Medium. Relentless storytelling and knowledge sharing about your cause are essential, but you have a lot of flexibility in how you choose to deploy these tactics. Researchers publish in journals, but revolutionaries integrate new media to reach the masses. For some good examples of documentaries that successfully educate audiences, see Mark Hall's Sushi: The Global Catch and shark advocate Rob Stewart's new film, not coincidentally called Revolution. You don't have to produce a full-length documentary, either. A blog and a YouTube series can be a great start.

7. Mobilization. Generating a following takes work. Get up every day and write. James Altucher is one of many star bloggers that will tell you that consistency is key. It's also a practice for refining your voice and escalating your influence. Another part of mobilization involves the media channels you use to distribute your message. Pitch to editors in outlets that focus on your target audience. Aim higher each year than were you were the year before.

8. Momentum. Do the first seven steps long enough, stay open and you'll gain momentum. But staying open to opportunity does not mean becoming an opportunist. One chases the spotlight while the other remains focused, illuminating the big idea long enough for others to finally see it. When at last you do gain followers, nurture your audience with steady information and inspiration. Engage them via Facebook, Twitter, a newsletter, guest posts on others' blogs, and so on.

9. Movement. Reaching this level involves all the previous steps, as well as extreme chance, intentional sacrifice and extraordinary leadership. Not everyone is up for it. Basically, you can't force a perfect storm -- you can only prepare for it. Embody revolution from the beginning and it eventually manifests. And when it does happen, regardless of whether you end up getting the credit, the reward of going on the hero's journey will still be yours.

The revolutionary road is riddled with obstacles: fear, lack of funding, personal issues and so on. And then there's also the social discomfort that goes with the job. Whether due to single-minded pursuit of your goal, an unpopular cause or your eccentric nature, you may be regarded as an outsider or iconoclast.

Or if you're like Steve Jobs, you may be considered an unbelievable jerk. While Jobs was famous for pioneering the personal computing revolution, he was also infamous for being abrasive, even abusive, to those he managed.

Love them or hate them, it doesn't matter. Revolutionaries don't give a damn what anybody thinks of them. In a word, they are convicted. Even while they may inwardly doubt, they maintain a strong exterior until they see their mission through to its end.

Consider Agnes Gonxhe Bojaxhiu, the youngest girl of seven born in Albania. Nine years after answering the call to become a nun, she experienced a "call within the call" to minister to Calcutta's poorest of the poor. Mother Theresa, as the world came to know here, was divinely inspired and enormously dedicated, but she was also besieged with doubt, suffering in silence for decades at a time. Her accolades cannot have compensated her fully for the inner turmoil she endured.

Starting a revolution is one thing, but persevering to the finish with dignity and some measure of peace is another feat entirely. Whether you are out to change the world or launch a new company, this work is not for the faint of heart. But there will be solace in your comrades, in the freedom to speak your truth, and in the immeasurable growth you will experience along the way.

And even when you don't succeed, living with a revolutionary spirit is still a hell of a lot more interesting than apathy.