I remember the moment well. Three friends and I were nervously pacing around, about to make a big presentation before 800 students in the auditorium at Boys High School in Brooklyn. Mr. Rampel, our English teacher, tried to allay our anxieties by saying that the two biggest human fears were death and public speaking.
Mr. Rampel was wrong. The single biggest human fear, experience tells me, is the fear of change. We tremble at the prospect of change on the horizon: starting a new school as a small child or, later, going to college, or still later, graduating from college; beginning a new job or getting a new boss or coping with the uncertain (and inevitably changing) environment of a corporate takeover; or getting married or cutting the marital cord.
For those of you who haven’t read Who Moved My Cheese? by Spencer Johnson, M.D., I have two words of advice: Read it. Then step back and analyze your own workday. How much of it is filled with never changing, always predictable, seldom mind-stretching activities? Do you always go to work toting the same coffee bought from the same corner café and then check your voice mail and e-mail and attend the same innocuous meetings and hear (and say) the same things, and on and on? Do you view your job—or company or industry—as a static paint-by-the-numbers canvas on which your biggest challenge is to stay between the lines? Do you crave the comfort of the known?
Welcome to the club. You’re not alone. But step back once again and ask yourself, “What kind of legacy do I want to leave?” Do you want to be remembered as someone who just helped make the trains run on time? Or do you want to leave a mark and be remembered as someone who truly made a difference in some way—in your family or your job or wherever?
If you do want to make a difference, then you'd better overcome your fear of change. In fact, you'd better be willing to shake things up. True leaders don’t just welcome change, they revel in it.
Take a look at some of today’s top corporate leaders. There was no obvious need for an Ipod. Steve Jobs envisioned the product to fill an unrealized need, disrupting the field in the process. Boeing CEO James McNerney cites openness to change as essential to success. AIG’s President Martin Sullivan warns, “A strategy and budget prepared six months ago may not be valid today. Always watch the environment—don’t manage a plan that’s out of date.” HP’s CEO Mark Hurd and IBM’s CEO Samuel Palmisano have been masters at overseeing the exquisite execution of innovative strategies.
Such visionary leaders remain ever alert to the changing dynamics of their industries and their companies. They recognize that those not willing to change become quickly obsolete.
I’m constantly urging my MBA students at Fordham to become change agents, to dare to dream. In one class, I challenged them to come up with an idea that would disrupt an industry by creating a totally new product or service. One group of students developed a software system whereby people coming into NYC could reserve a space at a parking garage in advance. That brilliant idea disrupted the parking industry. Today it is a viable business.
So remember: Fear of change is a natural human tendency, but if you can overcome that fear, you stand the biggest chance of leaving the most lasting legacy. That said, you don’t have to change everything in your life. That same daily cup of coffee from the same corner café may be just what you need to give you the energy to change in a changing world.