“I’m fascinated by change.”
When I hear people say things like that, I find the analyst in me rising to the surface. My response comes easily as I eagerly share ideas about the interesting patterns of change, the dynamics of emerging change, and the time horizon necessary to facilitate change. I love change.
Then the leader in me appears on the scene. Recalling the costs of change in human terms, I see the strain it creates as the process unfolds. I remember the intense energy it takes to manage change and enable others to participate meaningfully. I hate change.
Most of us would agree change is inevitable. Some see it coming. Others eventually acknowledge change by looking to the past to interpret a new reality in the present. A few look bewildered and simply ask, “When did things change?” or ”Why did things change?” or “Who changed things?”
The business world has given us interesting language for change. We sometimes hear, “You’re either on the train or under the train.” Sometimes we “blow away the cobwebs” or find a “breath of fresh air.” There are occasions when we “get outside the box” or “shake things up a bit.” There are, of course, situations that are far more serious when we realize we “can’t make an omelet without breaking a few eggs” or we encourage innovation by “turning lemons into lemonade.” The most ominous of these clichés, however, is a warning that, “You’re either at the table, or on the menu.”
Scanning the headlines provides sufficient evidence that change is occurring globally at a breathtaking pace. The role of nation-states is evolving, if not eroding. Conflicts among people groups that are centuries old are recycled in emerging generations with often violent results. Social patterns that once seemed reliable and consistent are in a state of flux and transition. These trends and many others are stirring change processes that feel less and less predictable in scope and intensity.
Closer to home, many communities and organizations are feeling the effects of these cascading waves of change as they are manifested in everyday life. We seem to be less sure about economic futures, more dependent on rapidly developing technologies, uncertain about the reliability of our physical infrastructure, increasingly concerned about the sustainability of our environment, and tested in our shared ability to lead and govern.
As we collectively prepare the coming generations of leaders to occupy the seats of power and authority in our society are we adequately preparing them to inherit the communities and organizations we will leave behind? Sometimes I wonder. We seem to want easy answers that can be expressed in tag lines, message points, and sound bites. My sense is this will not serve them. As I strain to imagine the setting in which their leadership will be expressed, I wonder if we are preparing them to ask great questions, rather than seek easy answers. Education at its best should draw young minds to think critically and creatively. Such thoughts are rooted in questions.
Embracing change, therefore, begins with a curiosity. Add to this a comfort with ambiguity and an ability to work through cognitive dissonance, and I think the essential elements begin to form. Individual determination extends our ability to cope as teamwork brings strength in numbers. Above all, patience and relentless execution enable successful change management over the long term. Learning how to do this comes from watching others and having opportunities to practice on small change challenges before we take on the larger ones. At its best, experiential learning brings these skills forward and lays pathways for attitudes and behaviors that enable us to lead through change.
In his book, Leading Change (1996), John Kotter explores the process of change, highlighting the factors that tend to determine whether an organization’s experience of change leans more in the direction of success or failure. Though this work is now nearly 20 years old, it still seems fresh and Kotter’s ideas on change have endured even through the fast-paced change we are experiencing in society today. At the end of the book, he offers the following reflection:
“As an observer of life on organizations, I think I can say with some authority that people who are making an effort to embrace the future are a lot happier than those who are clinging to the past. That is not to say that learning how to become a part of the twenty-first-century enterprise is easy. But people who are attempting to grow, to become more comfortable with change, to develop leadership skills – these men and women are typically driven by a sense that they are doing what is right for themselves, their families, and their organizations. That sense of purpose spurs them on and inspires them during rough periods.
“And those people at the top of enterprises today who encourage others to leap into the future, who help them overcome natural fears, and who thus expand the leadership capacity in their organizations – these people provide a profoundly important service to the entire human community.”
The more we enable our children to handle change, the better their futures will be. To get them there, however, we will have to change ourselves and begin asking the right questions.
About the Author
I'm the lucky individual who carries the title, 21st president of Central College in Pella, Iowa. My wife Tammy and I have two beautiful daughters, Emma and Greta. Passionate about higher education and the issues facing it and the world today, I hope to invoke an engaging conversation with all who are ready to dig in, make a difference and build for the future. Share your thoughts. I'm listening and interested.