Management lessons from the fall of the Berlin Wall…

“The Wall will be standing in 50 and even in 100 years”

Erich Honecker – East German head of state, January 19th 1989

Almost thirty years ago, the Berlin Wall came down. The Berlin Wall was a guarded concrete barrier that cut off West Berlin from the surrounding Communist State of East Germany. Over 140 kilometres long, it was built in 1961 to prevent East Germans from escaping to West Berlin. From the early 1950s to 1961, nearly 20% of the East German population left the country for West Germany.

On 9th November 1989, with crowds mounting in East Berlin the East German authorities announced the end of travel restrictions and opened up several checkpoints for visits to West Berlin.  Thousands swept through the checkpoints. Soon Berliners from the East and West began dancing on top of the wall and breaking off pieces of the wall. The fall of the Berlin Wall triggered a revolutionary wave that ultimately redrew the map of Europe, bringing down the Iron Curtain and setting millions of people free. Within two years, the Soviet Union and its empire also fell.

For 28 years the wall kept people in, and kept people out, separating and dividing families and friends, dividing Germany and the European continent. Over 5,000 people had escaped over this time and sadly an estimated 200 plus people died trying to escape from East Berlin to West Berlin. No one tried to escape from the West to the East.

My father believed that he would never see the dismantling of the Berlin Wall in his lifetime. I can clearly remember him saying this to us at the family Christmas in 1989. The current thinking at the time was that Communism’s rise was inevitable. Very few ‘experts’ predicted or expected that eventually Communism would collapse, let alone so quickly, and that Russia would lose its status as a world super-power.

What are the three management lessons from the fall of the Berlin Wall?

  1. The power of a vision. On 12th June 1987 US President Ronald Reagan stood at the Brandenburg Gate and demanded “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.” His words were largely ignored by the international media. Many so-called foreign policy experts dismissed Reagan’s demand as naïve and sensationalist.

There are few things more powerful for a business than having a clear and concise vision. Amazon’s vision is “To be Earth’s most customer-centric company, where customers can find and discover anything they might want to buy online, and endeavours to offer its customers the lowest possible prices”. Amazon’s current market penetration and size is testament to their vision.

  1. Things can get better rather than worse. The worst-case scenario may not happen, particularly when people put their minds to achieving positive change. Very often we are subjected to negative media stories. We regularly hear people spreading such sentiments inside organisations.

Never under estimate what positive outcomes can be achieved with great leadership and teamwork. Everyday we are subjected to non-positive messages that make us believe our future is not in our hands. Like the East Berliners in 1989, by believing that we can escape from a prison-like environment, whether physical or mental, we can set ourselves free and make positive change.  The dismantling of the Berlin Wall is a reminder of how the seemingly impossible can became the inevitable and if there is the will to make it happen.

  1. Predicting the future is dangerous. Sadly, we tend to lean on so-called ‘experts’ who advise us and write books predicting the future. However, the fall of the Berlin Wall and the associated collapse of Communism caught almost everyone by surprise. We should be sceptical of people who claim they can predict the future.

In the late 1800s The Times predicted that “In 50 years, every street in London will be buried under nine feet of manure”. This became known as the “Great Horse Manure Crisis of 1894”.  The invention of the motor transport and Henry Ford’s assembly line production of motorcars at affordable prices changed this ‘expert’ prediction. By 1912, less than 20 years after this prediction there were more cars than horses in London. Furthermore, they were cheaper to own and use than a horse.

What are the 3 concluding messages from the fall of the Berlin Wall?

  • Change is evitable.
  • Things do not remain the same.
  • Whatever you are doing today will not be good enough for the future.

Certainly, the failure of Communism to adapt and change assisted in its downfall. This is the same for organisations. Many of the great corporations of times past no longer exist.

So, what is your business doing to recognise the evitability of change?

What should you be changing so your business not only survives but thrives?

4 thoughts on “Management lessons from the fall of the Berlin Wall…

  1. Great post David! Regarding the unpredictability of the future, I recall Mrs Thatcher famously saying, ‘I have never made predictions and I never will…’!

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