The image of an apple falling from its tree probably comes to mind when you think of Sir Isaac Newton—not today’s large complex corporate enterprises.

Many of Newton’s laws of motion, however, do apply to organizations.

His First Law, for example, states that objects stay on the same trajectory and speed unless acted upon by a force. Throw a stick into a rushing river, assess the drift (speed and direction) of the current and predict the likely destination of the stick. Simple physics.

Organizations are no different. Unless acted upon, companies will also remain on a trajectory and speed, heading in a predictable direction, toward a predictable outcome.

If things are flowing in the right direction, there’s no need to mess with it. All that’s needed is to keep doing the same thing, though perhaps faster or more economically—however slightly.

But if the direction and destination of the organization or project is neither desirable or sustainable, then leaders step in. They become the force to impact the trajectory—to alter the flow of the river, so to speak.

Good Looks Only Go So Far

Successful leaders will be the first to tell you that in order to change the trajectory of their organization it takes a lot more than their authority, competency, and charisma; in order to be the force that can alter a drift of an organization leaders need to take a stand.

Here are some definitions of what is meant by taking a stand:

  • To make a determined effort to defend something or to stop something from happening;
  • To occupy a place, to be on one’s feet in action; to adopt a firm position about an issue;
  • (And from the military) To hold one’s ground against an enemy

Many have worked with at least one person unwilling to take a stand:

  • The opposite of taking a stand is being noncommittal, wavering, or wishy-washy.

When Taking a Stand Resembles the Grim Reaper

Commitment is a big part of what it means to take a stand but it’s not the whole picture. Taking a stand not only calls for your firm commitment but it requires your willingness to do whatever it takes, even if what it takes puts you in harm’s way. Consider Martin Luther King Jr.—his stand for civil rights cost him his life.

As well as commitment and a willingness to do what it takes, taking a stand is substantiated when it’s created for something rather than against. This is subtle, yes, but people do feel it. Taking a stand for the possibility of equality amongst all people is distinctively more powerful and enrolling then standing against racism. It just is.

When working in Cameroon building the country’s bus infrastructure, one of my managing directors took a stand for customer safety. This is a big deal in a country where customer safety gets little to no consideration.

Each week Cyrille would come into my office and ask for the budget to put seat belts on our inter-city buses. Each week I had to tell him there was no cash and remind him that seatbelts are not needed in buses.

After months of bugging me and months of being steadfast in his commitment to protect passengers from the notoriously dangerous road conditions, Cyrille Tollo convinced me to find the budget.

A number of months after the belts had been installed we were called to an accident scene I’ll never forget.

One of our buses was run off the road by a logging truck. The bus had flipped, the roof ripped off and two passengers were flung from the bus. Both of them died. Twenty-eight people had their seat belts on that day. And that day twenty-eight people lived.

Two years later, after our organization had won international awards and recognition, I asked Cyrille what he was most proud of. I shouldn’t have been surprised when he ignored our celebrated milestone of surpassing one million passengers but instead declared he was most proud of saving those twenty-eight lives in the bus crash. That’s disruptive leadership.

When leaders stand for something, like customer safety, they save lives.

What’s your stand?

Today, when I ask clients about their proudest moments, the stories that come back to me have a similar flavor.

I hear stories of people taking a nearly impossible route, or taking actions not aligned with the established way. Stories of people doing the not so obvious, the not so popular. People share stories of sticking their neck out for something they believed was possible. All are stories of people taking a stand, and predictably, producing a result that would never have come to be without them taking it. Predictable outcomes like ongoing inequality, or the loss of innocent lives, or even simply more years of not realizing one’s potential.

What are your proudest moments? When have you stood for something, resisted the drift and redirected the flow of the river? Take a moment to consider when you took a stand—and share your story with someone. Let them see what you’re really made of. Let them know what truly matters to you.

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