It’s that time of year again. A time for long speeches, celebratory dinners, and the obligatory silver pen and pencil gift set. No, I’m not speaking of retirement, but rather a different right of passage, commencement. As a lifetime member of the academy, first as a student and now as a professor, I have attended and participated in more graduation events than I can recall. And despite some high profile keynote speakers (e.g., Lance Armstrong, and Buzz Aldrin) it would be fair to say that few have been particularly memorable.
However, most recently at the High Point University Baccalaureate I heard a message delivered by Dr. Dwight Andrew, Senior Minister of First Congregational United Church of Christ in Atlanta and Associate Professor of Music at Emory University and an accomplished musician, which roused my interest and led me to a brief moment of reflection. Dr. Andrew based his message on Old Testament scripture in which the God of the Israelites instructs his people that they have “dwelt long enough in this mount” and that they must not stay in one place but move along their journey.
As I often say to my MBA students, we human beings do not like change. The irony is that if you ask most people they will tell you emphatically that they “like to try new things”, “get bored when things get too routine”, and wish the dinosaur companies they work for “were simply more open to change”. However, the reality is…we say we do, we may even believe we do, but when push comes to shove we typically do not like change.
Our tendency to avoid change is supported on many fronts. As humans we consistently strive to predict and control our environment by decreasing ambiguity and increasing consistency. Creating predictable routines can relieve stress and emotional loads. However, even conscious, rational thought is resistant to change. How much new information does it take to change someone’s existing opinion? Researchers have demonstrated that even when we do try to integrate new, inconsistent information with our existing base of knowledge and beliefs, our overall impressions rarely change.
And the tendency to stick with the status quo is not limited to the rank and file. When discussing the philosophical and tactical changes leaders must enact for their organizations to rise above the competition, Dr. Jeffrey Pfeffer of Stanford University states, “In order to be exceptional and earn extraordinary returns you have to dare to be different. And so everybody says, ‘Yes, I want to be different, but I don’t want to be that different.” And if you are one of the chosen few who approach change with open arms, the next challenge is inspiring your spouse, coworker, or subordinate to join you with equal zest and determination. Leadership is all about influence, and if you can influence others to embrace change you have a rare and coveted skill.
Undoubtedly, change can be difficult, anxiety provoking, and at times can entail great risk. But on this spring evening in Wesley Memorial United Methodist Church as I thought about these soon-to-be college graduates, leaving the safe and well-worn halls of their beloved alma mater, I was reminded that to grow and become “exceptional” we all must opt for change, whether it be in our personal or professional lives. So as you reflect on your current situation, ask yourself…”Have I been here to long?” And if the answer is yes, perhaps the time has come to “move along your journey”.