The many tributes to John Hume’s life in all media over the last week all confirm that he achieved what many CEOs talk about in terms of toe-curling tautology but rarely deliver: “transformational change”. It’s as if, as Sandy Toksvig once quipped, “there’s no change in ordinary change”.
I became aware of John Hume in 1972. I was 12, in bed with a cold. I could hear next door the sound of the RTE news which my Dad was watching. The sounds were of The Troubles. Something terrible had happened. That was clear.
The sounds of The Troubles became part of the soundtrack to my teenage years along with the Hits of the 70s: American Pie, Piano Man, Born to Run and the voice of John Hume on the news: quite, slow but most of all, repetitive.
Slow and repetitive as the refrain in any pop song like U2’s “I still haven’t found what I’m looking for” which remains in the brain like an earworm. Coincidentally, or perhaps not, U2’s Bono famously brought John Hume and David Trimble together at a campaign concert in the Waterfront Hall in Belfast to support the 1998 Good Friday Agreement Referendum.
The 1998 Good Friday Agreement was transformational. It transformed a war to peace, despair to hope, economic stasis to growth. Few peace processes in the world have been as successful. That’s why John Hume and David Trimble received joint Nobel Peace Prizes, why other nations study peacekeeping processes in Northern Ireland and why there was no way that the Brexit negotiations could be allowed to “untransform” what they had transformed.
While many people in London, Dublin, Belfast and Washington were involved in that process, few doubt that John Hume, the man from Derry or Londonderry was integral to that process. So, what can CEOs learn from John Hume about “change management”? There are many, but my top three are these:
First, he focused on creating an environment in which people could agree on a language of shared purpose: non-violence, consent, equality of belief. These became the Hume Principles. What are yours?
Second, he repeated these principles slowly, quietly, and endlessly. His beliefs stood the test of repetition. Can yours?
Third, he sought tirelessly to engage with everyone he could on all sides of the debate – and sometimes in doing so, he attracted ferocious criticism and danger – to bring them around to the benefits of a shared purpose. Could you seek agreement on a shared purpose, especially with those who disagree with you? What’s stopping you?
They say that you should never meet your heroes. I met John Hume, through luck rather than any personal achievement, at The World Economic Forum in Davos in the early 90s. I was then a young Commerical Director at Financial Times Television, then part of Pearson Plc. FTTV had a relationship with the WEF. We covered all the summits around the world. I got to tag along.
I found myself at lunch with John Hume, his wife Pat, Michael Portillo and others. By now John Hume had become an icon of my time, up there with Phil Lynott. I had not been keen on Michael Portillo. But at lunch, I felt deeply conflicted as Mr Portillo turned out to be magnetically charming and John Hume decidedly grumpy. I felt a bit disappointed.
No wonder he was a bit grumpy. It was a tense time – a time when the prospect of Martin McGuinness and Ian Paisley becoming friends let alone “the chuckle brothers” would have been risible. Most of the Northern Ireland leaders from all sides were in Davos, including David Trimble. There was a lot a stake then. It’s hard to talk about “transformational change” when people are not even talking to each other.
Later that afternoon, I saw John Hume from afar speaking intently on his phone. He seemed to me to be someone burdened but quietly resolute. Unshakeably.
The Northern Ireland peace process may seem wholly disconnected and irrelevant from your world as a CEO and to your board. But in my boardroom practice, I have witnessed precisely the same conduct as on display in The Troubles: anger, hate, violence – psychological, if not physical.
Behaviour over time is the definition of conduct. Perhaps, therefore, John Hume’s legacy is not just his contribution to peace in Northern Ireland but as a model to all leaders of how to conduct a change process, over time.
John Hume, peacemaker and ultimate “change manager”.
Requiescat in pace.