In today’s column David Brooks tells a riveting story about rapid change in the culture and mindset of the U.S. Army, in response to bad news coming back from the Iraq War. The story itself is fascinating — he chronicles the rise of the “COINdinistas,” a small group of leaders led by Gen. David Patraeus that embraced a counterinsurgency strategy — but I was also deeply moved by how a few individuals dramatically changed such a large and complex organization. If you’re looking for evidence that it’s possible to transform your own environment, it’s worth the read.
Elizabeth Weil – who is now working on a “memoir about marriage improvement” called No Cheating, No Dying – wrote a riveting piece for the New York Times Magazine about trying to improve her own relatively functional marriage. The project occurred to her when she realized how little conscious effort she was putting into the relationship, in contrast to almost all other areas of her life (work, kids, redoing the bathroom).
I was particularly moved by two passages. The first spoke to the link between private relationships and public impact:
In psychiatry, the term “good-enough mother” describes the parent who loves her child well enough for him to grow into an emotionally healthy adult. The goal is mental health, defined as the fortitude and flexibility to live one’s own life — not happiness. This is a crucial distinction. Similarly the “good-enough marriage” is characterized by its capacity to allow spouses to keep growing, to afford them the strength and bravery required to face the world.
And when the goal is leadership, “good-enough” may not be enough. One pattern we’ve observed in our own work is that people who have strong, energizing private relationships, whether with friends or family or partners, have an easier time leading in the public sphere. They have the emotional energy to stand up and take the inevitable hits and falls. A counter-intuitive lesson for aspiring leaders is to strengthen their connections to their favorite people, who may not have anything to do with their vision for change.
The second paragraph that got me touched on the fundamental contract between any two people, in any organization, including a family unit. As a note of caution, I’m giving away the ending here:
Over the months Dan and I applied ourselves to our marriage, we struggled, we bridled, we jockeyed for position. Dan grew enraged at me; I pulled away from him. I learned things about myself and my relationship with Dan I had worked hard not to know. But as I watched Dan sleep — his beef-heart recipe earmarked, his power lift planned — I felt more committed than ever. I also felt our project could begin in earnest: we could demand of ourselves, and each other, the courage and patience to grow.
The courage and patience to grow. One definition of leadership may be to pull those things out of ourselves and each other.
One of the uncomfortable truths about exercise, I’m discovering, is that change requires changing. Until I convince my body that it’s really going to need to do something different, it’s not wasting any time on building strength I’m unlikely to use. I’m already regretting this analogy, but to bring it in for a landing – my daily jog to work over the last year was a predictable lumbering towards business as usual. I felt virtuous, but nothing happened.
A professional convinced me to switch it up with a visually unfortunate mix of skipping, jumping, resting and recovering. The aggregate energy output was the same, but my body was shocked into responding. Suddenly I had entered the space of possibility. And suddenly I could lift up my well-fed toddler without hurting either of us. If I want to be able to continue to do so, it’s clear I can’t go back to the same predictable movements.
Organizational change is not that different. Firms are smart organisms that won’t go to the trouble to adapt unless something new really is required of them. Take your team off-site and encourage them to behave differently – to get crazy and creative in an organization built for head-down execution — and chances are good that they’ll do it. For that day. But send them back to the same job design, performance metrics and culture, and the sparks of innovation you saw on that ropes course will be quickly snuffed out.
Like service excellence, organizational change is the logical output of a system designed to produce it. When off-sites are linked to larger, systematic change processes, they can be great ways to introduce or reinforce new rules of engagement. When they’re a once-a-year yoga class designed to break your organization’s treadmill habit, very little is likely to happen.
Ok, no more body metaphors. Ever again.