The More Things Change, The More They Should Change.

2 Sep

“Chris, the speed limit is 50 here.”
(I speed up from the leisurely 39 I’d been going.)

“Careful!”
(Exclaimed as she leaned away from the direction of the car approaching the stop sign on her side of the car.)

“The speed limit’s only 55 here.”
(I slow down from the 64 I’d been going.)

“What are you slowing down for?”
(As I survey a quickly-decelerating vehicle in front of us.)

“Do you know where we’re going?”
(No, but I know it bugs you!)

I’m not saying that I’m never in need of “absent-minded speed correction.” But, my extraordinarily gracious and loving wife is, shall we say, an extremely participative passenger. Deserved at times, much more often not, my vindication in this driver-passenger input melodrama is the time my mother-in-law — her mother — told her , “Gawd, Bonnie, just let the poor man drive.”

SCORE!!!

In our vehicular dynamic, it seems that whenever I drive extra cautiously, I get questioned if something is wrong. When I drive normally, I get admonished for not attending to the myriad of imminent dangers. When I am accelerating and zipping along, I am supposed to slow down; when I take it easy, I am encouraged to get a move on. From my wife’s perspective, I am either too much oriented to safety and security or too bold and reckless. I am either stomping on the gas when I shouldn’t be or riding the break unnecessarily.

It’s just like the martial arts.

What???

I practice what most would regard as a traditional martial art. By traditional, I mean that we generally have a pretty strong regard for traditions: demonstrated manners, particular protocols, certain practices, whether ceremonial actions or techniques introduced by founders or senior instructors.

More progressive practitioners of the arts would consider us to be stodgy at best. Yet, some practitioners of other traditional arts, upon observing us, might consider us to have bastardized or compromised the arts. (What? You can’t use a tea bag in the tea ceremony? Kidding. How about practicing sword cutting on pool noodles rather than bundles of straw? Not kidding.) What about allowing students to regard us too casually? (Define THAT for me.)

I find myself liking to hang onto tradition in some good measure.  I do so because I appreciate some of the best elements of what tradition offers, what it teaches, the appreciation and attentiveness it fosters. I try to find the hidden benefits of particular practices. However, I often also find myself critically reviewing what is really accomplished in maintaining certain traditions or approaches. Sometimes I wonder if I am truly more of a progressive than a traditionalist. Can I possibly be both? I even find myself thinking that change should happen simply to shake things up and move things along to the needed next places. Revolution as well as evolution.

Martial arts, particularly those coming from far-east traditions, have developed as a conglomeration of a whole bunch of things: military training and protocols, religious and philosophical perspectives and practices, cultural norms, and founder/elder/top-dog preferences and egos. It can be tough to separate the wheat from the chaff (or the meat from the hummus).

Much of martial arts and eastern philosophy draws upon metaphor or analogy that flows from nature. In nature, if something isn’t changing, it’s dying. That happens on a long-term evolutionary scale of course, but it also happens on much shorter timeframes, as in the life cycle of annual flowers. I think age 30 is about when humans supposedly begin the physical process of dying, as in breaking down rather than building up. Thirty? Sheesh. Epigenetic changes can actually happen in our own bodies, particularly due to trauma, and be passed on to our children; we’re talking DNA change in our own lifetimes!

Flowing water is fresh and powerful; stagnant water is stale and weak.

Everything is in constant change whether we know it — or admit it — or not. Nothing is the same in this very instant as it was an instant ago: no tree, no person, no frog, no stone, no building, no system, no organization. Ignore it, avoid it, or fear it, change is a given and, I think, the greater complexity of circumstances today demands that we actively pursue change in order to best adapt and stay ahead of the curve. Or the enemy.

Even in the United States military, a formal and traditional institution, change in structures and relationships has happened in order to better meet the challenges of evolving threats. Team of Teams: New Rules of Engagement for a Complex World by General Stanley McChrystal presents an engaging discussion of this dynamic.

Some of the greatest companies in the world, companies that helped change the world in big ways (can you say Eastman Kodak?) died off or diminished because they did not reinvent themselves to adapt to that very world which they helped create. I found it quite insightful to Google search for articles about companies and brands that disappeared or faltered due to a failure to adapt or innovate. Both the popular and academic literature are rife with examples and analyses.

People, leaders, fear change or don’t pursue change for a variety of reasons, some practical (such as resources), some strategic (just the wrong decision), but much more often than not change is avoided or a poor strategy is decided because of hubris. Ego, arrogance, and pride often are the reason that a particular tack is maintained. As much as some may fear losing Profit,  more often the fear that seems to drive action or inaction in many areas of life is fear of losing Position, Power or Prestige of some sort. It’s Personal. Communication and input, particularly disagreement or divergent thinking, are squelched. Role, rank and tradition are maintained but prove inadequate to meet changing circumstances. Much more often than not, institutions that best adapt and innovate to meet new demands and needs — both external and internal — involve a diversity of people in different roles and with different perspectives in sharing information and making decisions, if not even sharing authority. Yes-men need not apply.

Whether in one’s personal life or in the institution with which one is engaged or leads, perhaps we can take a lesson from my driving experience with my wife. Yes, when I find myself rather unthinkingly hitting the accelerator, perhaps I should consider my speed. Usually in my case, however, I need to pay attention and think about how I might actually stomp on that gas, to speed up, to best fit into the circumstances of what’s happening around me. And when I am unsure of where I am or where I might be going, perhaps I should actually ask for input and help.

Every good leader needs a chorus of backseat drivers and needs to be willing to actually listen and adjust accordingly.

“Chris! . . .”
Thank you, Bonnie.

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