Vinoba Bhave was hard of hearing, and dressed in the garb of poverty: a homespun cloth around his waist and cheap brown canvas sneakers. But in the 1950s, this gentleman, a faithful disciple of Mahatma Gandhi, started one of the country’s most impactful social movements, transitioning the lives of millions.

The goal of Vinoba’s “Bhoodan"—“land gift"—movement was to help rectify India’s massive wealth inequity. At the time, wealth in the country’s primarily agricultural economy was concentrated in the hands of landowners. Vinoba walked thousands of miles for 13 years, visiting landowners, one homestead at a time. His request to each one was: “I have come to loot you with love. If you have four sons, consider me your fifth and give me my share." With this simple appeal, Vinoba collected over four million acres of land, which he transferred to the landless. Bhoodan remains history’s largest peaceful land transfer.

What can we learn from these powerful social movements—be they Bhoodan, Gandhi’s salt march, Martin Luther King’s civil rights movement, or Nelson Mandela’s fight against apartheid? Are there lessons here for those wishing to create large-scale impacts in the business world?

As an executive, I have been honoured to have led corporate transition projects involving tens of thousands of people. There are, indeed, key principles from social movements that I bring to bear in my initiatives. Here are a few.

Common enemy or collective pride: Hayagreeva Rao, professor of organizational behaviour at Stanford, says that you either need a common enemy or collective pride to galvanize actions towards a major transition. For Gandhi, the enemy was the British; for Mandela, the apartheid system. But collective pride can also be a powerful catalyst, as Bhave proved. In organizations too, if we want people to move in the same direction with a strong purpose, we need a compelling narrative, which speaks to collective purpose, and is easy to understand.

Turn grassroots into gold: The Strength Of Weak Ties by Mark Granovetter is a seminal paper on social networks. Granovetter explains that your immediate friends may number under a dozen, yet your friends-of-friends and third-degree connections turn out to be, surprisingly, even more important in many situations. Winning movements, too, are fuelled by energy that uses the principle of weak ties. Granovetter points out that the most successful organizational leaders understand that they must turn their approach to power upside-down and let local activists lead. I use this principle too: rather than an “air war" marketing blitz, change comes from a “ground war", galvanizing energy across an organization and maximizing the collective action of weakly-connected populations.

Embrace the mess: One of the most inspiring people I have met is Brazilian sailor Amyr Klink, who circumnavigated Antarctica solo in 1998, in only 79 days. As Klink readied for the trip, he faced a problem: his boat kept capsizing in rough seas. Finally, Klink took a radical approach: instead of trying to build a boat that would not capsize, he designed a hull that, after capsizing, would bounce upright. Says Klink, “Instead of running away from the problem, you should embrace it."

The transformation journey is always messy—policy disagreements, personality conflicts, territorial fights, and much more. But in winning movements, the leaders put their egos and organizational identities aside, which allows them to step back, focus on purpose and mission, and discover novel solutions that were not previously apparent.

Private truth and public lies: Donald Trump’s presidential victory was a surprise to pollsters. The reason: many Trump voters denied their intentions; they said they would not vote for him, while planning to do so. Economist Timur Kuran calls this “preference falsification"—misrepresenting one’s wants under perceived social pressures. It happens frequently in everyday life, such as a “white lie" to a dinner host saying we’ve enjoyed their bland meal.

Kuran provides a unified theory of how preference falsification shapes collective decisions, orients structural change, sustains social stability, distorts human knowledge, and conceals political possibilities. In large organizations too, people often tell things they don’t mean and, over time, create systematic patterns of negative unintended consequences. A wise leader creates an environment of trust that minimizes this tendency, and must be a fine-tuned sensor to detect and eradicate systematic organizational falsehoods.

The tipping point: As transformations progress, there is often a tipping point, where minority opinion shifts to majority. In a 2018 online experiment, researchers discovered that the critical mass a minority needs to reverse a majority viewpoint is just 25%. So, in your business, if you wish to bring a fundamental transformation, follow the “25% Revolution" theory: convert the mindset of 25% and you have a chance to reshape your business.

As transformation leaders, our job is to engineer large-scale social change. This is no less challenging than engineering a new computer system, or designing a new aeroplane. To do so, I have learned from great social movements as much as from my colleagues in the business world. The above principles are only a few of perhaps hundreds of lessons you may find from studying history’s great change-makers.

V.R. Ferose is senior vice-president, SAP, and head of SAP Engineering Academy, SAP SE