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Learnings from the French Revolution

Updated: Apr 3

French Toast is an all-age, all-time favourite breakfast food. The aroma from a freshly baked Croissant with a dollop of butter is something to die for!!! And is French Onion soup complete without a French baguette!!

Wondering what's the connection between bread and France? Apparently, as history says, bread was a flashpoint in the days of French Revolution in the 18th century!! Following a severe crop failure, there was a shortage of bread and people were starving. When Marie Antoinette, wife of King Louis XVI, heard about it, she apparently quipped – “Let them have cake”. Thus the French revolution became a violent struggle for bread, liberty and equality.

So, what can we learn from the French Revolution for the workplace of today:

1) Power Distance: With many firms planning for a long term remote/hybrid work scenario, its important for leaders to consciously reduce power distance between themselves and their teams. Leaders should be approachable from the perspective of the team members. Sometimes leaders insist they are always there for anyone in the team to call them. But does the team reciprocate that perception? An area to watchout for anyone in a leadership role is the emotional trap called “lack of trust”.

Unless there is social intelligence at play, there is no trust and consequently there is no reduction in Power Distance.

Leaders need serious coaching in building trust with their teams especially in a remote/hybrid work scenario.

Well, the French are even today a “high power distance” society. Nothing wrong with it. Just that King Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette took it to a royal high

2) Alternate Controls: When the French revolution eventually ended with the formation of the French Consulate, 3 people were anointed to be the consuls to run the country. Napoleon Bonaparte was one of them. He eventually became the emperor and ruled France for several years.

Providing alternate controls within an organization can be done through many ways. Empowerment is quite common in many organizations. However, more than empowerment, Governance mechanisms are important. The usual fault line in most organizations that empower their teams with decision making is to put in place a myriad set of rules and policies in the name of governance. This has the opposite effect of empowerment in that it creates more bureaucracy and creates unrest among teams.

Bureaucracy is usually an excuse to cull empowerment and eventually take over control. Napoleon, kind of did that. 

Exec Leadership commitment is extremely critical to engage, empower and communicate real leadership intent.

3) Brave Leadership: Apart from taxes, bread and liberty from the feudalism, the French revolution was also about peer power being exercised across multiple levels. A Financial package was conceptualised in 1786 that would tax everyone including the aristocrats and the privileged classes. King Louis XVI formed an “Estates General” comprising of the Clergy, Nobles and Middle Class. The middle class took the lead and after a lot of struggle mobilised support for equal representation rather than voting by social status. This eventually initiated French constitutional reform. Though King Louis XVI reluctantly agreed to constitutional reform, he paved the way for what would define the future of France. However, there were several issues to deal with and eventually he faced the guillotine and few years later the French Consulate was formed.

In an organization, we need a combination of King Louis XVI and Napoleon to take the organization forward (leaving aside their negative side).

A strong leader who could take brave decisions, stand up to nay-sayers, negotiate with all stakeholders and drive a uniform agenda across the organization.

An organization does not need a revolutionary personality, rather a negotiator and guardian of values and behaviours.

4) When the foundations are laid – lower power distance, building trust, empowering teams, busting bureaucracy and brave leadership – time would be ripe to move towards self- management. Compared to the medieval days of the French revolution, we are in a much more stable state socially and politically despite the pandemic. Therefore, organizationally moving towards self-management is a lot easier, though there are challenges. Unlike the French royals and nobles of the 18th century, corporate leaders are more open to progressive inputs.

Millennials, Gen-X, Y, Z are a lot more vocal about being heard, being open and culturally transparent.

Leaders, therefore need to adapt to the changing demands of the workforce.

Legacy style of management focusing on tasks, strong layers of hierarchy and not listening enough to the teams is exactly like the European medieval days. Its time to move on.

Be it manufacturing, audit firms, tech companies, financial services, packaged foods or pharma a wave of self-management is doing the rounds like the Mexican waves in a football match. Are you part of the wave? OR are you waiting for the flashpoint


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