When faced with a difficult situation in the workplace or society, you can lead change by tapping into the Connection Culture element of inspiring identity. History provides us with this powerful example.
In 1852, a writer living in New Brunswick, Maine, published a book that would be a catalyst to abolish slavery in America.1 Her publisher was not optimistic that the book would sell many copies, nor was she.
They couldn’t have been more wrong.
According to historian David McCullough, the book made publishing history, selling ten thousand copies in the first week and three hundred thousand in the first year. Three presses ran continuously to keep up with demand. Outside America the book sold one and a half million copies in a year and eventually was translated into thirty-seven languages. It is still being read, pondered, and discussed today.
McCullough observed this about the book:
What the book did at the time was to bring slavery out into the open and show it for what it was, in human terms. No writer had done that before. Slavery had been argued over in the abstract, preached against as a moral issue, its evils whispered about in polite company. But the book made people feel what slavery was about.
The popularity of Uncle Tom’s Cabin and its effect on readers took the author by surprise. Huge crowds came out to see her wherever she spoke. It was said that when President Abraham Lincoln met Harriett Beecher Stowe, he said, “So this is the little woman who made this big war.” Pondering the power that written stories had on
people, she wrote, “For good or for evil, [it] is a thing which ought most seriously to be reflected on. No one can fail to see that in our day it is becoming a very great agency.”
On January 1, 1863, the day Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation that freed slaves, Harriett Beecher Stowe was attending a concert in Boston. When someone in the crowd announced she was present, the audience gave her a standing ovation.
Although Stowe was not a leader in the typical sense, she was clearly a thought leader. Slavery in America had been hotly debated and discussed since the founding of the country, and yet slavery was not abolished until more than eight decades after America achieved its independence. Stowe’s words made it personal. Key to her success was her understanding of how Americans who were sympathetic to the abolition of slavery thought of themselves, in other words, their inspiring identity. Part of their inspiring identity was that they were decent, God-fearing people. The life of slavery described by Stowe was inconsistent with that identity. Likewise, they saw themselves as people who stood up against oppression. By writing a story that described conditions they deplored, Stowe forged an emotional connection among them that rallied them to make supreme sacrifices for the sake of their shared cause.
Review, Reflection, and Application
Harriett Beecher Stowe touched the hearts of abolitionists. Her vivid description of the evils of slavery outraged those who thought of themselves as decent people and moved them to action. Would you have the courage to expose wrongdoing in your organization? How might you create awareness of a standard practice that you know is wrong?
Adapted from Fired Up or Burned Out: How to Reignite Your Team's Passion, Creativity, and Productivity
1. David McCullough, Brave Companions: Portraits in History (New York: Prentice Hall, 1992), 37–51.
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Michael Lee Stallard is a thought leader, speaker and leading expert on how human connection in workplace cultures affects the health and performance of individuals and organizations. In addition to Fired Up or Burned Out, he is the primary author of Connection Culture: The Competitive Advantage of Shared Identity, Empathy and Understanding at Work.