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Leadership Lessons from Tahrir Square

After eighteen days of peaceful protests in Cairo's Tahrir Square, the people of Egypt have successfully accomplished the once unthinkable: They've forced Hosni Mubarak to resign his oppressive, three-decades-long reign as Egypt's president. Although it's too early to predict what will happen next – democracy, let's hope – there are leadership lessons that we can learn from the events of the past few weeks.

Know the mood of the people. Perhaps the most shocking thing about Egypt's regime change is how quickly it happened. Mubarak apparently failed to notice how the recent uprising in Tunisia had energized Egypt's population and, as a result, underestimated the nation's widespread support for the demonstrators. Dictators, of course, are rarely interested in the public's mood, and Mubarak was certainly no different. But business leaders would do well to keep their fingers on the pulse of their constituencies, lest they be caught off guard by mass dissatisfaction.

Change is best when people achieve it themselves. Managers often wonder how to implement change with the least amount of resistance from their staffs. In the end, some leaders resort to coercion; but unless you have a military under your control, coercion loses it effectiveness quickly. As the Egyptians demonstrated, change travels more smoothly upward than downward. When employees have a goal they believe in – fair and free elections, let's say – they'll drive change on their own. Inspire workers with a shared vision, and you'll get the change you're seeking.

Communication is evolving. One of the key figures in the Egyptian protests turned out to be Wael Ghonim, a Google marketing manager whose Facebook page helped spark what’s being called "the revolution of the youth of the Internet." Just how instrumental social media was in fueling the revolt is debatable, but sites like Facebook and Twitter helped organizers trade messages with each other. Whether you're broadcasting a protest's location, or announcing a staff meeting, you better have the right communication system in place.

Success often begins with a crisis. In the early days of the protests, news media around the world were reporting about the "unrest" in Egypt. Stock markets were jittery; Egypt's allies were alarmed. But all that changed after Mubarak stepped down. Soon, news reports from Egypt's capital were describing the joy and jubilation of a liberated nation. Successful leaders are those who never stop believing they'll prevail, even when those around them are forecasting failure.

Generation Y has found its voice. While Baby Boomers have reputations as society's change agents, subsequent generations have been criticized for being too self-centered. But it was young adults who, unlike their parents, are not content to tolerate oppression that unseated Mubarak. Fear not, Boomers; Generation is stepping forward.
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