Changemongers: the inside job of thought leadership

Throughout history there have been countless examples of warmongers; entrepreneurs and politicians who thrive in the disruption of war. Warmongers profit by selling arms, trading in human lives, and preying on the negative impacts these disruption events create. As mercenary and unpleasant as the idea of warmongering is, perhaps it's the context of the behaviour (rather than the behaviour itself) that's distasteful. 

Maybe the strategies mongers employed when profiting from war should be informing (to a point)  the strategies we will employ in this decade of disruption. As we approach these revolutionary ten years - where primary business models are failing, industries are closing down, jobs are being reworked and economic super powers are shifting like tectonic plates - you need to consciously position yourself to competitive advantage. You as the internal thought leader for your business need to be a changemonger.

To have this appetite for change you need to make the act of change an imperative that you lead, rather than a process that you manage.

To have this appetite for change you need to make the act of change an imperative that you lead, rather than a process that you manage. You must be willing to swim upstream. You also need to act with a somewhat revolutionary intent. It’s about being willing to take what is considered normal (and possibly sacred) and put it out to pasture in favour of what is necessary and new. This kind of change is difficult, because it goes against the safe, normalizing behaviour that got you to this point in the first place. As Dr. Marshall Goldsmith said, “What got you here may not get you there”. The problem with success is that it hardens your approach and causes you to repeat actions that worked in the past. If the speed of change is glacial, that’s fine. When it more closely resembles an avalanche, maintaining the course that brought you past successes might result in future catastrophe. 

There are a few common difficulties all changemongers face. First, you need to recognise that the signals for change are absent if you are ahead of the curve. This makes it challenging to convince others of the necessity for change, because they may not see the need until it’s already too late. Second, you need to find some wriggle room to make change outside of the system. Thirdly, you need to lead the emotions of stakeholders so that the change is experienced as an ideal evolution versus an aggressive revolution; we’re not really at war here after all, and you need to motivate your people to come along with you.

There are three strategies you can employ to break down these barriers:

  • Make status quo the enemy. People won’t see the same need for change as you, so you need to wage a constant war on ‘business as usual’.
  • Make embracing change a culture, not a strategy. It will be hard to change a system from within it, so you need to create a culture for change in your organisation.
  • Make leadership the change imperative. It needs to be an evolution that you lead, not a forced revolution.



“Amazon ate my server”

Amazon was looking after their own data-hosting needs when they developed all their own server technology. One day they woke up and realised that they could sell their server space to other companies with similar requirements. There was a market for ‘cloud’ storage, and most importantly, what they had developed was faster and more flexible than what all the big status quo companies were offering. 

Even the big names of technology can’t stay the big names of technology when they don’t move forwards aggressively. Dell, HP, EMC and Cisco provide servers, and Oracle and IBM offer databases. Amazon has made their traditional server technologies obsolete. With the advent of Amazon Cloud, the business model of data management has been disrupted, as servers are now essentially free and and there is open-source access to the programming that drives them. Even worse for these companies, Amazon is now going after their legacy customers – those feeling locked in to a long term relationship based on the (deliberate?) inflexibility of the provided product. Customers that these companies thought untouchable are now being given the opportunity to transfer their data to the Amazon Cloud with ease.

You need to wage a constant war on ‘business as usual’

Business as usual is not going to help us adapt and thrive in the decade of disruption. It’s about being able to see the next steps and navigate change before it’s even begun to happen.

Take the Big 5 business ideas of the moment: information, innovation, efficiency, change and engagement, and you can see a dramatic shift in what they mean and what matters in each case. Things are not staying still long enough for old paradigms and out of date distinctions to have any relevance. The following table explains the shift in meaning around these issues. On the left is what they used to be about and on the right is what they need to be about.

Things must not stay the same. 



“It’s hard to read the label when you're the genie in the bottle.”

As evidenced again and again throughout history and business, both ancient and recent, it's incredibly hard to change a system when you're living within the system. For those operating in large, complex organisational structures with many moving parts, leading change and disruption is incredibly difficult. 

Take this story from the advertising industry. A dominant advertising agency in New York found that smaller, more agile agencies were stealing market share, yet the company was unable to respond because of the size and inflexibility of their business. So what did they do instead? They created their own small and agile agency to take on the market, in direct competition with their own parent company. Separate offices, its own culture and a clear direction: save us from ourselves.

They created a culture which embraces competition. They embrace it so much they’re happy to compete against themselves. The team at Business Insider have done a great job of listing 18 other similar business divisions.



“We are defined not by the technologies we create, but by the process in which we create them.” – Kelly Johnson

Kelly Johnson, chief research engineer of the American aerospace and technology company Lockheed Martin, formed ‘Skunk Works’ in response to the need to evolve and expand projects in a company already at capacity. There was so little space in the factory that Johnson hired an old circus tent and moved his people out there. Skunk Works was essentially a small independent team ruled by a series of Kelly Johnson principles - the project manager had complete control of each project, the number of people involved was severely restricted, a minimum number of reports were submitted (though those that were must be thorough), and elite engineers were given hands-on access and freedom with the project. Johnson believed that a flexible and nimble team was necessary to drive creativity and change. His team was responsible for creating a number of groundbreaking engineering feats in record breaking time, including the Blackbird, arguably the best jet plane ever built.

As a leader, you must be positively paranoid and look for where complacency has set in. Go about training your focus and energy on the inertia of the old. If nothing changes on your watch, you are a manager not a leader.




To be a great changemonger, you need to step outside the machine of your own success and disrupt yourself. It's about having an appetite for change and a renegade mindset that enables you to thrive in disruption and swim upstream. And if you do? Like Amazon Cloud you will be able to offer your clients what they actually want better than anyone else. Like the advertising agency, you will be able to operate with flexibility outside of company structures. Like Kelly Johnson, you will have the ability to lead confidently in a crowded workplace. That’s what being an internal thought leader is all about.