How to make decisions when the rules are shifting. 

“All you gotta do is tell them you’re going to bring the dogs. Look at ’em run. I want to see the dogs work.” —Bull Connor, commissioner of public safety, Birmingham, Ala., January 1963

The “them” that Bull Connor was referring to were children ranging from 6 to 18 years old. Of the 1,000 school-aged children that took part in the Birmingham civil rights marches, or “Project C” (the “C” was for confrontation), as it was referred to by Martin Luther King and his team of organizers, 600 were jailed for up to five days. The resultant photos of Birmingham children being attacked by dogs and pummeled with fire hoses shook the world and led President Kennedy to leave the sidelines and address the struggle for civil rights head on.

At the outset of the march, President Kennedy and his attorney general and brother, Robert Kennedy, called King and admonished him and his team for putting children in the path of near certain violence. It hadn’t been a quick decision. Leading up to Project C, King and his colleagues had been organizing in Birmingham for three months with little success and were about to give up.

A few organizers suggested strongly to King that they had to “change the rules.” In the face of a potentially deadly “zero-tolerance policy” shift on the part of Birmingham city government, they needed to respond with a tactical policy shift of their own.
And change the rules they did, by betting that images of children under threat would shock the American public into sympathetic action.

The civil rights movement is often seen as a steady march towards justice and equality. It was anything but. King’s campaign for civil rights was falling on deaf ears in Birmingham’s black community—not because they did not believe in the cause, but because they had families to feed. Protesting against one’s employer was not great for job security. Faced with this problem and on the verge of pulling out of Birmingham, King’s team realized that they could mobilize young people right after school was dismissed to create potentially campaign-defining visuals. But in doing so they would be putting high-schoolers down to first graders in the direct path of Bull Connor’s dogs, fire hoses and armed men. Hard choices had to be made after the rules were changed, and they were forced to react.

After fierce internal debate, children did lead the Birmingham marches and their efforts were directly responsible for the gains made by the civil rights movement.

“Entrepreneurs like you make this city great—and not because you pay taxes. Because you always find a way—especially when guys in government and other places that affect your business change the rules on you.” —Former Boston mayor Tom Menino speaking to me, June 15, 2012

It can be argued that Tom Menino was perhaps the best big city mayor in United States history. In a poll taken shortly after he died in 2014, almost two thirds of Bostonians said that they had met Menino since he became mayor in 1993. Nicknamed the “urban architect,” he seemed to be everywhere in Boston. He even found time to attend a ceremony announcing the launch of my company, Burst, in 2012.

At that event, we chatted briefly about the impending damage that climate change could do to Boston. Little did he know that four months later, Hurricane Sandy would embody that danger, ravaging the Eastern Seaboard and causing tens of billions of dollars of damage. In June 2013, as he announced plans to prepare Boston for future climate-induced mega-storms, he put forth the following: “The government and private sector need to be proactive in planning for a future with rising sea levels and future storms like Sandy. The steps that I am announcing today will help make our waterfront and the rest of Boston better prepared to handle future storms.” Menino understood that the rules of protecting his city had changed and he was going to do something about it.

Over the next few years, Menino created the City of Boston Climate Action Plan, The Boston Green Business Awards, the Green Business Roundtable and the Sustainable Business Leader’s Program. In short, if you were a business leader in Boston, environmental protection of his city was a price of admission if you wanted Menino’s support. To lead by example, he even installed solar panels on the roof of his own home in Hyde Park.

As Boston Properties SVP Bryan Koop, who worked closely with Menino and his team for many years on many projects throughout Boston, notes, “The origin of the word ‘decision’ in Latin means ‘to cut off.’ Making a decision is about cutting off choices—choices that are often increased as the rules change. Menino would say, ‘Bean Town is going to be Green Town.’ All too often we forget that leadership isn’t about well-crafted, articulate speeches and sound bites; it is about making tough decisions and, yes, having the courage to cut the choices off. There is nothing more powerful than cutting off the choices, making a decision and then following it with massive action.”

Tom Menino made hard choices and made others make hard decisions when it meant doing what was right for his city—no matter the number of choices and how much the rules changed. He understood the delicate interplay between the private and the public sectors and cherished those in the private sector who were resourceful and resilient enough to find solutions.

When the world’s entrepreneurial spirit, diverse skill sets and resilience have been called on in times of dire need, people respond.

President Trump’s recent decision to withdraw from the Paris Accord has thrust another mounting dilemma to the fore, underscoring the necessity of rising to the challenge of ensuring that this planet is sustained for our children, grandchildren and beyond. Like Tom Menino before them, over 200 U.S. mayors and 10 governors thus far have denounced the Paris withdrawal decision. The stage has been set for entrepreneurial leaders in the private realm to step up. Some are already doing amazing things in the face of climate change, but the time is now for the future Bezos, Gates, Bransons and Zuckerbergs in the environmental arena to rise—to do what King and Menino’s teams did when it mattered most. To be specific, they could jointly undertake a public education effort on the causes and cures of climate change, and on measures to abate its effects. They have marketing and communication skills that the environmental movement lacks. History shows when the world’s entrepreneurial spirit, diverse skill sets and resilience have been called on in times of dire need, people respond. We’ve overcome world wars, medical pandemics, droughts, famines, floods, scandals, corrupt leaders and governments, and more.

The challenges might be the most daunting we have faced, but I believe it is entrepreneurial DNA that will help us find our way. We know that slowing the rate of climate change will help on many fronts, but we are running out of time—transformative approaches and technology will shortly be the only path forward. I predict that Amazon- and Google-like fortunes and impact will be conceived to fix the ozone layer, to lessen extreme weather events, to deal with population shifts and to allocate food, water and other essential resources fairly and efficiently. Frankly, we have no choice. We have to figure out how to make it work because otherwise we face grave consequences. The Paris withdrawal should be viewed for what it is—a rule change and a wake-up call to examine how we are approaching solutions. It is imperative for great leaders and entrepreneurs to respond in the way that they do when macro-rule shifts occur. It is once again time to confront rule changes head on.

Bryant McBride featured in publication on Worth.com.