or not the unprecedented global events of September 2001 bring
about an enduring change in our national psyche remains an open
question. Even now, nearly a year after that horrific Tuesday
in September, our emotions are still too raw, too fragile to know
whether our determination to think and act differently will stay
with us, or whether we’ll eventually return to the familiar routines
of our lives before. Although I don’t claim to possess the wisdom
to know what will happen, I am trying to remain hopeful.
conversations with family, friends, and colleagues over this last
year, I continue to pick up the same theme. “Everything has changed,”
they say. “Our world really is different, and I will never be
the same.” While there is a plaintive quality to their words,
there is also a sense of pleading to be believed. It’s almost
as if we’ve finally realized that our years of “crying wolf” about
change are now over for good. The intensity of these conversations
produces the strong scent of determination, a willingness to do
the difficult work of fundamentally re-orienting and re-ordering
the priorities of our lives, our organizations, and our society.
words may be encouraging, but simple intent isn’t enough. We must
find the courage to act, in much the same way that America’s truly
heroic soldiers are doing for us even as I write this article.
Having a serious discussion about what it takes to re-create our
organizations for a new reality is no longer sufficient. We need
to act boldly and without hesitation.
will not be easy. In turbulent times, it feels much simpler to
retreat to the comfort of what we already know so well. And even
though we can try to lead our organizations to new places using
old approaches, we will not be credible as leaders if we do so.
Our cognitive dissonance may allow us to say “everything has changed”
out of one side of our mouths and “we’ve always done it this way”
out of the other, but it simply won’t fly anymore. And if we,
the followers, accept excuses and tolerate timidity, then we deserve
to face all the consequences of our own cowardice.
the questions we must answer are really quite clear: what do
we believe in and what are we prepared to do to make it happen?
For me, answering these questions came out of necessity last fall
when a staff re-structuring at my organization led to an unexpected
transition out of full-time work. This sudden change was quite
a surprise. I left my office on Friday afternoon with a job. By
the following Monday, my job was gone. I was crushed, and I felt
repudiated by the decision.
as I moved beyond my initial emotions, I began to ask myself the
two questions I’ve posed here. Everyone who knows me well is clear
on the idea I believe in most strongly of all: learning. I’m a
learning fanatic. I love to engage people in conversations about
why learning is so important in our lives and how most of us have
never really learned how to learn. For years, working inside the
non-profit association community, I’ve tried to spread what I
consider to be the “gospel” of learning, encouraging colleagues
in the education arena to think differently about how learning
occurs, and to consider embracing different ways of supporting
in this watershed moment of my life, I needed to re-connect with
my own convictions about learning and think very carefully about
what I was going to do to live up to them. To be honest, it was
not a difficult decision. Even though I knew it would be easier
for me to find a new job, I recognized that I had to follow my
own compass and become my own person. Even though I didn’t have
the greatest economic conditions in which to start a new venture,
I knew I had the powerful desire to find my own voice, as well
as a responsibility to help others find theirs. Even though I
risked letting down my wife, my friends, and family and, most
of all, myself, I knew I had to find my own courage, if only to
pay homage to all those who have been demonstrating their courage
in the face of immeasurably greater danger.
some, my decision seemed completely counter-intuitive. “Why put
yourself on the line right now? Why not work for another year
and then see how things shake out?” The answer was very simple:
because everything has changed, because our world really is
different, and because I will never be the same.
a time when the country of my birth is battling both at home and
abroad against those who oppose our way of life, all of us who
cherish freedom must demonstrate our conviction to that freedom
by totally embracing its rights and responsibilities. As a free
person, I have made a choice to live my life, and to try to create
something better for others. With luck and a great deal of hard
work, I’ll be successful. But even if my business doesn’t work
out, I will still be a success in my own heart because I’m standing
up for what I believe in and trying do something to make it happen.
how can you translate your intentions into action? I suggest that
you not be afraid to “grope” for a while. No one expects you to
have all the answers right away. Instead of trying to solve every
problem you might face moving forward, consider allowing some
of those problems to “solve” you. Allow your innate curiosity
and enthusiasm for the future to flow through you every day, instead
of only when it is convenient for the organization. Refuse to
live a life divided between what others think and the truth you
know in your own heart. If what comes next for you and your organization
is going to be built on belief, then this kind of passion is a
remember: we still need more than passion. In the absence of inspired
decision-making, our passion remains a latent force. Even though
it might feel more comfortable for us to defer our choices during
this challenging time, it is actually the worst thing we can do.
When we put our lives on hold in anticipation of a “better time”
down the road, we deny ourselves the opportunity to learn that
even if a better time never comes, we will always have now.
of you may be wondering what this essay has to do with “organizational
readiness in turbulent times.” Well, possibly nothing. Then again,
maybe it is our individual and collective willingness to live
up to our espoused beliefs that will be the central factor in
determining how ready our organizations will ever be for a vastly
more uncertain future. As I’ve already written, I don’t pretend
to have the answers. What I do know is that without courageous
choices and bold strokes today, tomorrow is likely to be bleak.
I suggest we commit ourselves to not permitting that possibility.
Instead, I think we should honor those who are sacrificing for
all of us by making the most of our different world and our different
selves right here, right now, today. Will you?
De Cagna is chief strategist for Principled Innovation LLC. Based
in Arlington, Virginia, Principled Innovation LLC offers provocative
strategic insights to tradition-oriented organizations, including
associations and libraries, trying to capitalize on the emerging
opportunities of an uncertain world. A Fellow of the American
Society of Association Executives (ASAE), Jeff is a graduate of
Johns Hopkins and Harvard universities. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org