We live in a transformational age. Powerful technologies like the cloud and artificial intelligence are quickly shifting what it means to compete. Social movements like #MeTo are exposing decades of misdeeds and rewriting norms. The stresses of modern life are creating new expectations about the relationship between work and home.

Every senior manager and entrepreneur I talk to understands the need to transform their enterprise, yet most are unsure of how to go about it. They ordinarily don't teach transformation in business school and most management books minimize the challenge by reducing it to silly platitudes like "adapt or die."

The truth is that change is hard because the status quo always has inertia on its side, but  transformation is possible. Yet before we can drive change, we need to unlearn much of what we thought we knew. Change will not happen just because we want it to, nor can it be willed into existence. To make real change happen, we first need to overcome the myths that get in its way.  

1.You Have to Start With a Bang

Traditionally, managers launching a new initiative have been trained to start big. They work to gain approval for a sizable budget as a sign of institutional commitment. They recruit high-profile executives, arrange a big "kick-off" meeting and look to move fast, gain scale and generate some quick wins. All of this is designed to create a sense of urgency and inevitability.

That works well for a conventional initiative, but for something that's truly transformational, it's a sure path to failure. Starting with a big bang will often provoke fear and resistance among those who don't see the need for change. As I explain in my book, Cascades, real change always starts with small groups, loosely connected, united by a shared purpose.

That's why it's best to start off with a keystone change that represents a concrete and tangible goal, involves multiple stakeholders and paves the way for future change. That's how you build credibility and momentum. While the impact of that early keystone change might be limited, a small, but successful, initiative can show what's possible.

For example, when the global data giant Experian sought to transform itself into a cloud-based enterprise, it started with internal API's that had limited effect on its business. Yet those early achievements spurred on a full digital transformation. In much the same way, when Wyeth Pharmaceuticals began its shift to lean manufacturing, it started with a single process at a single plant. That helped give birth to a 25% reduction of costs across the board.

2. You Need a Charismatic Leader and a Catchy Slogan

When people think about truly transformational change, a charismatic leader usually comes to mind. In the political sphere, we think of people like Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr. and Nelson Mandela. On the corporate side, legendary CEOs like Lou Gerstner at IBM and Steve Jobs at Apple pulled off dramatic turnarounds and propelled their companies back to prosperity.

Yet many successful transformations don't have a charismatic leader. Political movements like Pora in Ukraine and Otpor and Serbia didn't have clear leadership out front. The notably dry Paul O'Neill pulled of a turnaround at Alcoa that was every bit as impressive as the ones at IBM and Apple. And let's face it, it wasn't Bill Gates's Hollywood smile that made Microsoft the most powerful company of its time.

The truth, as General Stanley McChrystal makes clear in his new book, Leaders: Myth and Reality, is that leadership is not so much about great speeches or snappy slogans or even how gracefully someone takes the stage, but how effectively a leader manages a complex ecosystem of relationships and builds a connection with followers.

And even when we look at charismatic leaders a little more closely, we see that it is what they did off stage that made the difference. Gandhi forged alliances between Hindus and muslims, upper castes and untouchables and many other facets of Indian society. Mandela did something similar in South Africa. Martin Luther King Jr. was not a solitary figure, but just one of the Big Six of civil rights.

That's why McChrystal, whom former Defense Secretary Bob Gates called, "perhaps the finest warrior and leader of men in combat I had ever met," advises that leaders need to be "empathetic crafters of culture." A leader's role is not merely to plan and direct action, but to inspire and empower belief.

3. You Need to Piece Together a Coalition

While managing stakeholders is critical, all too often it devolves into an exercise in n-person game theory in which a strategically minded leader horse trades among competing interests until he or she achieves a 51% consensus. That may be enough to push a particular program through, but any success is bound to be short-lived.

The truth is that you can't transform fundamental behaviors without transforming fundamental beliefs and to do that you need to forge shared values and a shared consciousness. It's very hard to get people to do what you want if they don't already want what you want. On the other hand, if everybody shares basic values and overall objectives, it's much easier to get everybody moving in the same direction.

For example, the LGBT movement foundered for decades by trying to get society to accept their differences. However, when it changed tack and started focusing on common values, such as the right to live in committed, loving relationships and to raise happy, stable families, public opinion changed in record time. The differences just didn't seem that important any more.

In a similar vein, when Paul O'Neill took over Alcoa in 1987, the company was struggling. So analysts were puzzled that when asked about his strategy he said that "I intend to make Alcoa the safest company in America." Yet what O'Neill understood was that safety goes part and parcel with operational excellence. By focusing on safety, it was much easier to get the rank and file on board and, when results improved, other stakeholders got on board too.

4. You Will End With The Vision You Started With

When Nelson Mandela first joined the struggle to end Apartheid, he was a staunch African nationalist. "I was angry at the white man, not at racism," he would later write. "While I was not prepared to hurl the white man into the sea, I would have been perfectly happy if he climbed aboard his steamships and left the continent of his own volition."

Yet Mandela would change those views over time and today is remembered and revered as a global citizen. In fact, it was the constraints imposed by the broad-based coalition he forged that helped him to develop empathy, even for his oppressors, and helped him govern wisely once he was in power.

In much the same way, Lou Gerstner wouldn't have dreamed that his tenure as CEO at IBM would be remembered for its embrace of the Internet and open software. Yet it was his commitment to his customers that led him there and brought his company back from the brink of bankruptcy to a new era of  of prosperity.

And that is probably the most important thing we need to understand change. In order to make a true impact on the world, we first need to change ourselves. Every successful journey begins not with answers, but with questions. You have to learn how to walk the earth and learn things along the way. You know you've failed only when you end up where you started.

Disclosure: In the past, Experian has paid for me to appear at its annual conference and travel to interview its executives.

Published on: Feb 23, 2019
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