The Unsung Heroes of Cultural Change

Brazil World Cup Squad: – Credit –

The Unsung Heroes of Cultural Change

“The Battle of Santiago”

The year was 1962, the “beautiful game’s” pinnacle moment had arrived centre stage, as football’s highly anticipated World Cup was being hosted in one of the most southern points on earth- Chile. Just less than two years earlier, the country was pummelled by history’s most devastating earthquake, known as the “Great Chilean Earthquake.” It registered a whopping 9.5 on the Richter scale and had an impact which could be felt almost 20,000 km away in lands faraway like China. Possibly, it was a harbinger for the event that would unfold; which became known as one of the most tenacious and fiercest World Cup’s ever played, epitomized by such games as the “Battle of Santiago,” which saw the host nation duel Italy in a ferocious affair.

The Great Chilean Earthquake/Battle of Santiago

One of the favourites to win it all was Brazil, led by Edson Arantes do Nascimento better knows as Pelé; a voracious scorer and maestro on the pitch, who many argue is the greatest player to every play the game. The Brazilians collectively knew that having a cohesive and high performing culture, especially, in such a tense environment was paramount to the success of the team. The prevailing view was that Pelé’s brilliance and star power on the pitch underscored by the 77 goals he scored, was the driving force of leadership on the team that truly shaped Brazil’s winning culture.

However, surprisingly, Pelé was never made captain of the team nor did he ever lobby for it. The team’s captain was little known Hilderaldo Bellini, a gritty and humble central defender who, during a nine-year stint, never scored one single goal. While Pelé attended to the pressures of the spotlight and was the face of Brazilian football, Bellini took care of the daily, hourly grunt work of unifying the team and building their winning culture. He cleaned up their mistakes with his fearless defense, often leaving the pitch bruised and bloodied, and calmly urged them forward when their confidence sagged. His job wasn’t to dazzle on the field but to labor in the shadows of the stars, to carry water for the team, to lead from the back.

Brazil 1962 Squad/Bellini

Brazil eventually won the 1962 World Cup in spectacular fashion, and in an iconic moment, Bellini raised the trophy emphatically above his head, an extravagant gesture for the time. Maybe the unassuming defender was finally soaking in the glory of his role; the unsung hero, a backstage leader, a cultural firebrand, who many of his peers dubbed as the real foundation of the team’s winning football culture.

“The Lonely Wizard of Menlo Park”

Thomas Edison is one of the greatest innovators of our time. He was often referred to as the lonely “Wizard of Menlo Park” tinkering alone arduously in his lab into the late night, cranking out invention after invention with his tireless brilliant mind. He produced 1,093 patents and a trove of creations that helped shape modern history, such as the light bulb, phonograph, and motion picture camera.

He is also credited for cultivating one of the most powerful and iconic innovation cultures at the world renowned “Invention Factory” located in Menlo Park, New Jersey. A location, which many claimed fathered the birth of modern-day start-up culture and powered the rise of innovation. His famous line of “I haven’t failed, I just found 10,000 ways that won’t work,” encapsulates the mindset and behaviours that formed such a unique culture, where inventions like the talking doll, electrical pen, cement, and vote recorder never took off.

Menlo Park/Edison

Although Edison was the face of Menlo Park, he was not as “lonely” as people seemed to believe. In fact, he was surrounded by many other brilliant innovators who later became famous in their own right, and several of his most prolific inventions (which he takes much credit for) were not entirely his. For example, his famous 1888 movie camera, was mostly the work of an employee named William Kennedy Dickson.

However, the essence of innovation culture at the Factory really stemmed from a small group of skilled technicians and craftsmen dubbed the “Muckers.” These gifted young men travelled across the US and Europe, to join forces with Edison. They were responsible for testing, experimenting, and iterating many of the ideas and are often considered the real magic, fabric and lifeblood of innovation at Menlo Park. If “genius is 1 percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration,” as Edison famously says, then the Muckers should be credited for many of the prolific inventions at Menlo.

The Invention Factory/The Muckers

Over 200 people worked tirelessly at the Invention Factory, and most interacted heavily with the Muckers, and often saw them as informal leaders and cultural influencers, versus Edison himself, who was more of a central connector and orchestrator.

The Unsung Heroes

Behaviours of individuals (which are the currency of cultural change) are not typically changed by printing them on the wall, putting them on a PowerPoint or having a CEO list them out in an annual town hall event. People often change behaviours, in an organization, by seeing others, by copying behaviours of their colleagues and peers, especially those they have strong relationships with or admire. This is where the role of influencers and informal leaders (such as the Muckers and Bellini’s of this world) come into play. They are the unsung heroes of cultural change. Unlike formal leaders in top management (which are a few in number) informal leaders’ cross organizational boundaries and come equipped with a high degree of breadth and reach. This allows for more scalable and viral spread of the behaviours targeted. In fact, cultural influencers can have close to 60% more reach than formal leaders have in an organization with frontline staff, who are the real unlockers of change. Informal leaders can often be the true cultural leaders of any organization, thus identifying, leveraging, and engaging them to propel change (although not always at the top of the agenda in a cultural change effort), can often prove to have the most impact.

Informal Leaders: Strength in Numbers

However, for informal leaders to be recognized and leveraged in any change effort, the formal leaders often need to take a back step and appreciate that the leadership and power to move an organization is not only in their hands. This requires a deflation of ego at times, which is not always an easy task.

Whether it was Pelé playing the beautiful game or Edison the Mighty Wizard of Menlo, great leaders know how to take a step back and appreciate their informal leaders and unleash their pockets of power to drive meaningful change. Using these unsung heroes of change, is an essential part of shape shifting cultures, and can often have the most impact due to the sheer scale and viral spread they can create.


About the Author: Rani Salman is a Managing Partner at Caliber Consulting; a boutique consulting and training firm focused on Strategic Change and Execution. This blog was part of a series done by contributing authors of the 3rd Edition of The Economist Guide to Organization Design