I recently made my first business trip to India. I have researched the Indian industrial market and worked with Indian colleagues for many years. But experiencing it first hand challenged what I thought I knew about India. I enjoyed my trip, except maybe for the travel.

I recently made my first business trip to India. I have researched the Indian industrial market and worked with Indian colleagues for many years. But experiencing it first hand challenged what I thought I knew about India. I enjoyed my trip, except maybe for the travel. According to Delta, it’s 8,932 miles between Kansas City and Mumbai. Fortunately, the in-flight movie selection was pretty good.

One of the movies I found most interesting was the 2009 drama “Invictus,” which is the story of the South African rugby team that defied odds to win the 1995 World Cup and in doing so helped create unity in the post-apartheid culture of that nation.

The movie centers on President Nelson Mandela and his steadfast view of creating unity among whites and blacks. As you recall, Mandela was imprisoned in 1962 for plotting to overthrow the pro-apartheid government by force. He was released in 1990 and quickly gained international status as a political force for racial equality. He became the country’s first black president in 1994.

For me, one of the most compelling scenes of the movie is when Nelson Mandela (wonderfully portrayed by Morgan Freeman) is asked why he was supporting the mostly white South Africa rugby team, after being imprisoned by whites for 30 years. Mandela responded by saying, “If I cannot change when circumstances demand it, how can I expect others to?”

This line resonated with me not just in terms of racial unity, but as an illustration of business leadership. Everyone in the business world knows about change. But some organizations embrace it better than others. How is it that companies such as Apple, Toyota, and Amazon.com always seem to be on front edge of market innovations? How can large companies such as Coca-Cola and IBM always seem to find new channels for sales and profits? How is it possible for McDonald’s to succeed in India? The answer is the same as what Nelson Mandela explained: Effective change starts from the top.

The harsh reality is that some leaders embrace change much better than others. Many times, it’s a natural byproduct of experience. Probably everyone reading this column has heard a manager say, “We tried that before but it didn’t work.” Some leaders view change as a negative – a threat that must be contained. Or it’s seen as a nuisance that interferes with normal business. Whatever the reason, a common reaction is to do nothing and allow the change to either become a part of everyday life, or burn itself out. For some leaders, change needs to “prove” its own legitimacy before action is warranted. This is why so many companies always seem to be scrambling for leftover market share. They are so busy conducting their normal business they can’t fathom the idea of doing business any other way. And even when they are eventually forced to change, they do it begrudgingly, with an attitude such as, “This trend is only going to screw up the market.”

The 2010 Bloomberg list of Most Innovative Companies should be a wakeup call for many American businesses. For the first time ever, a majority of the top 25 companies are based outside the U.S. Even more intriguing is the rise of Chinese and Asian companies as innovators, not imitators. For many years, China has been seen as a business culture that simply duplicates others at lower cost. This appears to be changing. But how? One factor is that many Asian business leaders are being educated in the U.S. They learn the value (and profitability) of innovation versus duplication. And now they are putting theory into practice. Asian companies are changing because their leaders are the primary drivers of change. They’re not waiting for change to happen; they are causing the change the happen. They’re smart enough to realize that when you drive change, you can drive it the way you want. When you’re always reacting to change, you usually have to play by rules established by others.

Many businesses want to think they are innovative and responsive to market dynamics. They put these words in vision statements and hang them on the office walls. They boast about how much money they spend on R&D and may even have employees with impressive titles such as “Director of Innovation.”  

While all this may be fine, it’s important to not forget the words of Mr. Mandela: “If I cannot change when circumstances demand it, how can I expect others to?” Do you see change as something that “demands” your attention? Do you “expect” your organization to be able to respond to competitors and changing conditions? Then take a good look in the mirror. Do people see you as someone who actively looks for meaningful change? Are you encouraging employees to take a chance on new ideas? Or are you often stuck in the “ways that have worked in the past”?

It’s difficult for most of us to comprehend Nelson Mandela’s ability to forgive and move past “petty revenge” for the sake of racial harmony. He understood that embracing change was the key to reaching something much greater than winning an election. In thinking about what he achieved in South Africa, I ask myself this question: If Mr. Mandela, despite what he endured, was willing to change in order to lead a nation, shouldn’t I be willing to change to lead a team of people in my organization?  

Not all change is good. And not every fad is worth chasing. But effective leaders are tuned in to meaningful change. They see it before it becomes commonplace, and they orient their organizations to not just survive it, but to capitalize on it.

They live out the words on their walls.