Opinion

The challenge of changing course

Posted May 31

Winston Churchill is purported to have said, “Take change by the hand, or change will take you by the throat!”

Political parties, elected officials, business leaders and the consulting class regularly dismiss the need to change or adapt. Change is everywhere in the 21st century, and how individuals and organizations deal with change usually determines their destiny.

The story is often told of the arrogant, unbending, unwilling-to-change sea captain — who represents so many of us who think our personal genius, might, rank or title gives us license to resist change.

You remember the story: On a dark and foggy night in the midst of a stormy sea the captain of a ship spotted the apparent light from another ship in the distance. He quickly went to his station and flashed a message across the water, “Change your course 20 degrees north.” Almost instantly a reply was flashed back, “Change your course 20 degrees south.” The captain became angry and flashed back, “I am a captain and a commander in the naval forces and I say change your course 20 degrees north.” The responding message was signaled back, “I am a seaman first class with no commander and I say change your course 20 degrees south.” This infuriated the captain, who now signaled, “I am in a battleship and I say change your course 20 degrees north or else.” There was a brief pause. The angry captain awaited for what he was certain would be a very submissive reply to his command. Finally the response came, “I say change your course 20 degrees south — I am in a lighthouse!”

Everyone loves to talk of change; few are willing to actually do it. We must be willing to not only engage in the conversation about change; we must be willing to adjust our course to the path of change that emerges. We often hear, “Change is good — you go first!”

Pundits who polarize, politicize and pit us against each other in the name of media ratings, click-bait ad revenue and fundraising dollars make it difficult for all of us to make course corrections. We have created an environment where no one is willing to let go of a position, even when they know it won’t work or are clearly presented with a better way.

How often do we see leaders dig in their heels on an issue, not because they are right, not because they are standing on principle, but because they are unwilling to consider, even for a moment, that they might be wrong, or worse, that their opponent might be right? This unwillingness to consider changing course on issues like immigration, criminal justice, poverty, health care, tax reform, education and addiction ensures that we are continually tossed about on the waves of politics instead of navigating our way into the harbor of real solutions.

The history of business is also filled with countless accounts of wonderful companies, brands and cutting-edge products that died out simply because the people behind them were unwilling to change course. Today organizations that are nimble, swift to embrace change and always on the lookout for emerging trends are those experiencing the greatest growth and success.

There is also a personal component to changing course. The “unfriend” button on social media is an easy way to get rid of a lowly seaman who may be challenging you to change course. We may double down in an argument with a spouse or child just because we believe we are right and they are wrong. We may dismiss a neighbor because their call to change course undermines our view of an issue. The American people regularly vote for change — but only if it doesn’t take us out of our current comfort zone.

In the 21st century, change is constant, and only those who are willing to change will survive. Accepting change isn’t enough, embracing change isn’t enough — driving change is what is needed. Nothing changes until we are willing to change our course. I have learned by personal experience that taking change by the hand is definitely more pleasant than change taking you by the throat. It is better to bite your ego, swallow your pride and change course than it is to run aground or be dashed on the reefs with an ego-filled, unchanged point of view.

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