Some thoughts about the impact of meaningful change

July 13, 2009
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Our country is the fruition of dreams about individual freedoms that came about through coordinated revolution. Taxation of the masses to support a distant government that seemingly provided little in return for what it collected was a motivating factor in the birth of our nation. A quest for individual (and religious) freedom was another driver. People sought to create their future by seeking an honest reward for their individual efforts.

The United States, even during its infancy, was a destination of the oppressed seeking to elevate themselves through their unencumbered individual effort and a haven for entrepreneurs willing to risk everything in exchange for the promise of a better future. Some may say that we have lost these idealistic dreams of individual success today — that our country has become more of a “provider to all” than a capitalistic center that rewards free enterprise. Others bemoan the loss of our golden era, seeking to hold on to what once was, rather than seeking what is yet to be.

Perhaps a realist would recognize that if we remain what we always were, we will never advance to a higher plane — but a better future may seem tough to accept when one is tangled within their own tough reality. Though America may have lost a bit of its luster over the years, our individual freedoms (as long as we work diligently to preserve them) and financial reward for both creators and investors provide the basis for continued growth.

Change, however, must come from within, and must be rewarded not only through internal satisfaction but also with a stable and predictable economic foundation.

In response to global recession, our country is in the process of transforming itself from the world’s manufacturing leader to an incubator of ideas. To secure work within this changing world, people must develop a diverse knowledge base that can be stretched and adapted to fit our fluid society. Life-long learning has become practical reality for those hoping to advance in (or even retain) their job. Businesses once able to thrive by servicing local markets must now compete on an international stage.

We must intentionally move forward toward new opportunities or we will be left behind to pick up the pieces of "life as we knew it." In a capitalistic economy, jobs will be created for those willing to accept the responsibilities provided as long as individuals can see their dreams come to fruition and are rewarded appropriately for their individual risk.

In order to thrive, we must learn to innovate rather than find comfort in what always was (because it may never be again). Gathering knowledge that could be applied to known, well-defined situations produced satisfactory performance at one time. Today we must learn to think  —rather than simply “do what is expected" — and to extend our accomplishments beyond short-term gain into long-term reality if we wish to taste success.

Our educational institutions must reinvent themselves to meet this expectation, making sure students grasp core concepts and how they are applied rather than memorizing answers to questions that may never be asked. If we continue to teach only the answers, who will know what questions to ask once the teachers are gone?

We must move away from rewarding effort toward recognizing accomplishment — the ultimate measurable that comes from the application of focused and intentional effort. 

To accomplish change, we must strengthen teams by embracing competent leadership that will motivate individual behavior toward a common conclusion in an ethical manner. A strong leader accepts the reality that everyone is not equal and leverages the strengths of each team member toward the accomplishment of a mutually beneficial goal. During times of transition and change, leaders must motivate individuals to not only accomplish their immediate objectives but also to adapt to the fluid world around them.

Everyone wants “change” but few take the time to define what “change” truly entails. What lies ahead for us? Is the light at the end of the tunnel one of hope or is it one of unavoidable disaster?

Listening to promises of change, whether made by industry, government leaders, or individuals seeking to make things “different” is never a bad thing in and of itself. Such promises, however, should always identify what is being targeted and what the alternative will be. Seeking change just to alter the present is hollow unless we know — and hold our leaders accountable for defining — what the alternative will be once change takes place.

As we move through a “summer of discontent” toward a “fall of opportunity,” focus upon the process of change rather than on change itself. Think about what might be rather than what won’t work. Identify where we want to be — what we want changed and what should be left the same — before seeking the promise an unfolding future may hold. Raise the individuals around you to a level of equality rather than finding ways to “meet in the middle” or tearing others down in an effort to elevate yourself.

Embrace the opportunities that an uncertain future offers, moving deliberately forward in an effort to grow from them, rather than worrying about things you cannot control or obsessing over change that is going to happen regardless of what you may or may not do.

History tells us that individuals either embrace the opportunity of a new tomorrow by consciously and intentionally leaving behind what is not working as they seek what might work, or they are swept up in someone else’s vision without thinking about its ramifications.

Do not fear change — fear only those things and individuals that refuse to change as you seek to expand your present-day reality into a fresh new tomorrow.

David J. Smith is president and CEO of The Employers’ Association, a not-for-profit provider of human resource solutions since 1939.

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