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Work Life Lead: The River of Change

Things can only remain the same by changing. This is a twist on Heraclitus’ famous saying, “You can’t step in the same river twice.”IMG_9886

It never occurred to me that when I became involved in the world of leadership development, that so much of my time would be taken up with issues of change.

As I reflect upon the people, projects and the years that have passed, it is change that has provided the context for the best lessons in leadership to be learned.  Yet, it is resistance to change that continues to be a consistent response wherever I go.

Lying behind that resistance is a belief or a conviction that change is an aberration, and whatever is not change is the norm or even the goal.

The Mississippi River will always have its own way; no engineering skill can persuade it to do otherwise… Mark Twain in Eruption*

Lately, I’ve been thinking of change as being on a river in a boat. The river has its own mind. It will flow downward regardless of what I think. The only way to stop it is put up a huge wall. Yet, that creates a reservoir of water or change that waits to be released to continue its natural movement forward.

I see many leaders trying to build walls to hold back change. Their reasons are multitude. It could be to protect  positions of prestige or power. It could be to preserve tradition. It could be from perceptions of what success and failure are that are no longer valid. For whatever reasons, to wall off change is not to be rid of change.  Rather to contain change is to increase the pressure for change. The natural thrust for change because it has the ability to renew resources, to prune dead weight, remodel poorly designed structures and to carry us to new places in our life and work.

Change is greater than our ability to resist it. Like a great river it just keeps moving on.

So, what are we to do?

Let’s think of ourselves in a boat floating on the river of change. We do have some choices.

For our boat to remain in a fixed spot on the river requires one of two things.

An enormous source of power to push continually against the downstream force of the river. That power can be the power of ideas, as an example.

The river could be leading to ever greater consolidation of businesses and leadership in an industry. To push against that river of sameness is to find power in the ideas of difference. How to differentiate ones business from all those others that exists. How to resist turning ones products and commodities into lowest cost commodities fit for the lowest common denominator customer. To push against that stream requires ideas and resources to sustain itself. If done well, our boat does not remain in one place, but goes up river to find a new more, more congenial tributary to journey down.

Or, to remain where we are, we need an anchor that is sunk deep into the shore with a long, heavy chain. This anchor and chain are the legacy structures and traditions that once had the power to resist the current, but possibly no longer. Now, only the structure remains as a monument to an earlier era of where the river was a dynamic environment for growth and experience.

Change is the handmaiden Nature requires to do her miracles with. Mark Twain, Roughing It*

In reality, our best choice is to see the river of change as a context for our life and work. Think of the great river boats that worked the Mississippi River in Mark Twain’s day.  As they pursued their course, life was lived and work conducted. The river of change became a place for purpose to be carried out, adapting to the shifting currents of the stream as we move with the stream and against it as our purpose determines.

Just like with a great river there is no standing still in our lives. No remaining in place. Instead what awaits on the river of change is discovery.

What do we discover?  An unknown idea, an innovative approach, a new partnership, an untapped market and, ultimately, we discover what we are made of, our talent, our character,  and our capacity for change.

I’m convinced that resistance to change has less to do with change itself, and more a reflection of a lack of self-confidence.  In a quote attributed to Mark Twain, but not yet verified nor authenticated, he says,

Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did. So throw off the bowlines, Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.

If change is a river, it is a river to be explored and discoveries to be made. To live and to work on the river of change is where our opportunities for discovery and achievement are found.  Resisting by being anchored to the shore only turns us into obstacles in the river’s current, waiting for the day when a flood of change comes and sweeps us away. And none of us wish that disappoint to visit us.


About the author

Dr. Ed Brenegar I'm a leadership speaker, writer and consultant who is a mentor and catalyst for change. I assist leaders and their teams in the transitions required to succeed in today's complex organizational environment. I live in Western North Carolina. I'm involved the Boy Scouts, a charitable leadership training group called Lessons In Leadership, an ordained Presbyterian Church USA minister, and am the host of the Say Thanks Every Day social network.

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Posted in General Leadership, Leadership Q + A, Work Life Lead.

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