06/06/2014 03:30 pm ET Updated Aug 06, 2014

Why We All Want to Change the World (And Why We Often Fail)

It's no surprise that 'change the world' blog posts are wildly popular with purpose-driven business owners. Many of us start our businesses precisely because we have a burning desire to right a social wrong. Yet, on a week when the world marks the 25th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square incident, I wonder about the connection between our individual perceptions versus the collective reality of what humanity wants to change.

June 4th 1989 unfolded in my late teens. I was swept up in the emotion of the nightly news stories on TV. Images of students, not much older than I, were on self-imposed hunger strikes. The now-iconic Tank Man stood defiantly in front of tanks exiting Tiananmen Square. I naively concluded what so many of us probably did: the Chinese government had conducted a heinous act on innocent students who had done nothing to deserve it.

This week, I was drawn to read more about the events leading up to June 4th. Thanks to Wikipedia, I learned that June 4th was the culmination of a series of meetings, decisions and demonstrations that had begun as early as April 15th 1989. And as I reviewed reports of those events through the lens of my current calling as a leadership and applied mindfulness professional, I saw weak links in the chain of communication, trust and power at every turn.

The Chinese government didn't start out being combative, and the students didn't start out being overtly anti-party. The citizenry was simply frustrated with the slow pace of economic reform and liberalization, and students wanted government officials to step up the pace. What began as a largely peaceful protest by a group of intellectual student leaders was soon overrun by emotionally-charged hardliners who wanted to engage in more radical measures. And what started as the government's openness to dialogue with the students reportedly morphed into a division amongst its most senior ranks, a gripping fear of the loss of control and stability and consequently a decision to denounce the protestors as having been backed or unduly influenced by Western ideals that threatened the country's socialist fabric.

We lead as we perceive
We are a product of our perceptions. I see this in action every day, in how it holds my clients back or propels them forward. I see how tensions had escalated between the Chinese government and the student protestors because of a few critical misperceptions. Rational openness to dialogue and concessions soon gave way to emotional furore.

As organizational leaders, once our negative emotions are triggered to the extent where we believe we are under threat, it's often difficult to regain our composure and perspective. We may not resort to tanks and guns, but we wield the ammunition of power and control just the same. The downward spiral of our fear, anxiety, rage or depression can be a swift and detrimental road to oblivion.

So...what's a leader to do? How do we inch closer to the reality of what's really happening, so that we can create change that has a better chance of making an impact?

Forcing versus flowing
With Tiananmen Square or other movements that begin nobly, things go askew when we feel we're not being heard or understood. We then stick even more firmly to our position and start forcing our agenda. Inflammatory emotions take over and we prepare to do battle.

There are instances where violence is the only viable solution because things have escalated past the tipping point of reason. Most of the time though, solutions can be found through flowing with the enemy instead of forcing them into submission. The Japanese martial art of Aikido illustrates this beautifully. Rooted in the founder's philosophy of universal peace and reconciliation, Aikido is performed by blending with the motion of the attacker and redirecting the force of the attack rather than opposing it head-on.

The next time you're in a combative situation at work, try defusing matters by flowing with the energy of your adversary. You could acknowledge the validity of their perspective as you firmly state your own. Their beliefs are as precious to them as yours are valid to you.

The paradox of personal identity
Identifying with our family, community, society or country helps us feel like we belong. These beautiful ties that bind can also limit our view and make us force our identity on others because we believe our way is best.

I was born and raised to be a global citizen. Thanks to that and my multi-cultural heritage, I have no urge to over-identify with any one group. This allows me to empathize with all parties concerned and help them see the bigger picture in order to reach a universal solution. This skill, which I now impart to my clients, has helped me lead cross-cultural teams and embrace a tri-continental life and career.

When my American friends declare that democracy is king, and then my Asian friends lament about self-involved Americans, I see how far we have yet to go to honor our respective identities. I see how Western materialism so often leads to unconscious self-centeredness (give me liberty to have whatever I want or give me death!), and I also see how the community-based thinking of Eastern wisdom traditions leads to conservative policies that over-sacrifice personal liberties in favor of the greater good. Both ideologies have their pros and cons. Neither one holds the singular key to collective freedom or responsibility.

By all of us waking up to the truth that there are alternative and equally valid ways of leading, there will be less forcing of our one 'right' path to change, more flowing with a deep understanding of how 'the other side' lives and, over time, the creation of an impactful mosaic that is neither my change nor your change, but our change.

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