Lead, Change or Get Run Over

Normally when I start off on an article I have a pretty good idea of the topic that I want to cover. Call me old school but this antiquated idea of writing coherently about a single topic appeals to me. That will not be the case this time. I have been thinking about change lately and I decided that I need to step outside of my comfort zone and practice a little of what I have here to fore been preaching. Hang on; it could be something of a bumpy ride, at least for me.

Since I have just mentioned change, I think we will go there first. I am going to propose what I humbly call “Gobeli’s Axiom of Change”. It goes something along the lines of the following:

In order to change, you must do something different.

There are so many wonderful quotes about change that are available. I have used many of them in the past. I am particularly fond of the quotes attributed to Albert Einstein regarding change. He seemed like a pretty smart guy to me but I won’t use any of his quotes again here. If you want to read them, go Google “Einstein quotes change” and see what you get. There are not only a bunch of quotes from Einstein; there are a bunch of sites that have a bunch of quotes from Einstein.

However it has been my experience in business that change is not about quotes. It appears to actually be some sort of arcane concept that business people pay little more than lip service to. They are more apt to put up posters encouraging change and quote Einstein when it comes to change, than actually changing anything.

The idea of change and the quotes surrounding change make it seem like a lustrous concept that is neat and clean and simple. It’s positioned as if it is your patriotic duty in business to change. Change however is not clean and simple. It takes effort. It involves risk. It is invariably messy. That is just the way change works. This is because you are usually changing from something you know, to something you don’t know, yet.

It is precisely for these reasons that many managers will talk glowingly about the need for change, but will never ever do anything different. Doing something different would mean that there would have to actually be some change involved and that would subject them to the effort, mess and risks noted above. Therefore there is usually a significant amount of discussion regarding change and the need for change, but due to the inherent reluctance to change anything, very few things are ever done any different.

When it comes to change, remember what Einstein said:

“Insanity is doing the same thing, over and over again, but expecting different results.”

Based on this and other topics that I have covered in the past, one could infer that leading change, or leading anything in business for that matter involves more effort, and more risks than following someone else who may be doing the leading. I think it is pretty safe to say that is the case. In the past managing has been much easier and less stressful than leading.

The shuffling of papers and paying lip service to all the change initiatives used to be a safer, lower profile approach to business. There are many people who have happily gone through their careers on this path.

If that is truly the case, it brings up the question:

Why would anyone want to lead?

The simple answer to this question is:

Because things have changed.

It used to be that people who took jobs and worked reasonably hard were pretty much assured that they probably had a job for the rest of their lives. They had reasonable job security and could look forward to a pension when they retired.

As Dorothy said to Toto in the Wizard of Oz:

“I don’t think we’re in Kansas anymore.”

When was the last time you heard of someone having job security? How about staying at the same company for an extended period of time? Lastly, when was the last time you heard of anyone talking about a pension when not referring to a corporate or municipal bankruptcy?
I don’t think this is a case of Dorothy and Toto leaving Kansas. It is more like Kansas slipping away out from under them when they weren’t paying full attention to the landscape.

With all that being said, it still doesn’t fully answer the question of why anyone would want to lead. This reminds me of a college survey that I once read a long, long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. The survey asked the question:

Which is a bigger threat to society: Ignorance or apathy?

The general consensus at that time was that no one knew, and no one cared.

I think the parallel here is that leaders do know and do care about what the threats to business are, and what needs to be done to avoid them. We have all heard the more than trite saying that the only constant in business today is change. I do not necessarily think that is true, or we would all be experiencing more change and it would be much easier to change than it apparently is. If change is truly a constant we seem to have far too many people constantly fighting against change.

I would not focus on the change function as a topic unto itself, but rather as a result of instability. When business seemed to be stable (and pensions were available) there was not much in the way of change. Now even this was not entirely true. Technology continued to change, but the way business and businesses worked remained reasonably constant. Hence the ability for the risk adverse follower to still make out a reasonable career existed.

The only thing stable about today’s business paradigm (I actually hate that word, but it does seem to fit well in this context) is the instability of business. I worked for a company that was once recognized as a world leader in their market with more than thirty billion dollars in annual revenues, and less than seven years later the company was bankrupt and gone from the market landscape.

In a business world where apparently so many do not know what to do, or are unwilling to venture forth with a plan, it would seem to me that the best way to go now is to lead. When it turns out that everyone is taking the safe route and everyone is following everyone else, then everyone ends up at risk. Inactivity or failure to act now presents a bigger risk than taking action, even the wrong action.

Leaders understand the risks involved with taking a stand or implementing change, and do it anyway. They don’t take unnecessary risks. They understand that the risks associated with today’s business environment are multiplied if they do not take action. They see that what was once a stable landscape is no longer stable. They understand that waiting for someone to tell them to take action is riskier than identifying the action that needs to be taken and then taking it.

Despite my affinity for quotes from Albert Einstein, I’ll close with a quote from someone else. John Cage was a renowned musician and composer. He said:

“I can’t understand why people are frightened of new ideas. I’m frightened of the old ones.”

In an ever more unstable business environment leave it to a musician to capture the essence of the new structure. Go figure.

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