Wednesday, July 29, 2009

A New Kind of Normal

Greg Gadson didn't choose to be a change freak, but God had other plans for him. A 41 year old West Point Grad, a former linebacker on the Army football team, a commissioned officer and 20 year veteran of the US Army, Greg had a lifetime of successes. He was a decorated battalion commander serving in Iraq when his "trapdoor transition" took place in the flash of a second.

In the "About the Freak" section of the web site, I talk a little bit about "trapdoor transitions." I first heard the term from author and hero of mine Steve Farrar in his book "Tempered Steel." A trapdoor transition is a life changing event that isn't planned or anticipated, but fundamentally changes the direction of one's life. As you look through history at great men and women who changed the world, often you will find a trapdoor transition that led to that transformation. For Abraham Lincoln it was his first experience as a young man seeing an African slave sold at auction. For Ronald Reagan it was an assassin's bullet that narrowly missed his heart. For John Walsh it was the kidnapping and murder of his son. For Greg Gadson it was a road side bomb in Iraq.

A recent article in Homelife magazine tells the story of Gadson's trapdoor transition. He remembers being on patrol in his Humvee when a bright flash threw him from the vehicle. Landing with a thud far from the destroyed vehicle, his first thought was "Where's my rifle?" Moments later, as he began to fade from consciousness, he remembers thinking "God, I don't want to die in this country." When he awakened days later at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, he learned that his life had been saved several times, first by a fellow soldier on the field in Iraq and later by a string of surgeons fighting to save his life. While his life had been saved, his legs had not-both were shredded beyond saving and had to be amputated.

Greg recalls fighting a battle with depression that was harder than anything he had faced on the battlefield. But the experience taught him some valuable lessons about life. "I had to adjust to a new kind of normal. You've gotta fight to do your best no matter what unexpected challenges you face. Your life can change in a Baghdad minute, as mine did. Tomorrow isn't promised, so you must act to do your best with today, no matter what God has in store for you."

This is great advice for anyone facing change in their personal or organizational life. This message, given as part of a pre-game locker room talk, inspired the New York Giants to defeat the heavily favored New England Patriots in this year's Super Bowl. While Gadson now sports a Super Bowl ring for his contribution to the team, his greatest adornment is his character-formed and strengthened by an unexpected fall through a "trapdoor transition" he would have never chosen for himself.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

What Gets Measured Gets Changed

Virginia felt powerless. She was one of the first women to ever be admitted to the surgical residency at Columbia University in 1933. Always a trail blazer, she didn't quit when told by the chairman at the end of her residency that, as a female, she had little chance of attracting patients and having a successful career. He persuaded her instead to join the college hospital staff as an anesthesiologist. She dedicated herself to the job and became only the second woman in the United States to become board certified in anesthesiology. She was often quoted as saying "Do what is right and do it now!" In spite of all this success, she felt helpless to change a situation that almost daily broke her heart.

As an anaesthesiologist, she was bedside for hundreds of births and was appalled by the the care that many newborns received. In the 1930s, delivering a child was the single most dangerous event in a woman's life: one in 150 pregnancies ended in the death of the mother. As shocking as these statistics are today, the odds were even worse for newborns: one in thirty died at childbirth, scarcely better than a century before. Virginia saw babies born blue and left unattended to die. Babies who were malformed, small, or not breathing were listed as stillborn and simply allowed to die with no attempts to revive them. She knew in her heart that many of them could be helped, but as an attending anesthesiologist she had no authority to help them or change medical practice. She wasn't an obstetrician, and she was a female in a male dominated world.

Then she had an idea, an incredibly simple idea that changed the course of medical history. She developed a measure for nurses to rate the condition of babies at birth on a scale of zero to ten. An infant got two points if it was pink all over, two for crying, two for taking good, vigorous breaths, two for moving all four limbs, and two it its heart rate was over a hundred. Published in 1953 the score turned an ambiguous and intangible concept (the condition of an infant at child birth) into data that could be collected and analyzed. Nurses and doctors had to pay more attention to the condition of an infant to rate its score, and during this time many babies improved quickly with simple care. The measurement started being applied virtually world-wide one minute after birth and again five minutes after birth. If for no other reason than the competitive nature of attending physicians, scores began to improve and thousands of lives saved. Neo-natal units and hundreds of other transformational changes to infant care such as ultrasounds, fetal heart monitors, and spinal and epidural anaesthesia were developed over the years to improve scores.

And the results? Today a full term baby dies in just one childbirth out of five hundred, and a mother dies in less than one in ten thousand. To put this into perspective, relative to the statistics of the 1930s over 27,000 mothers and 160,000 infants lives have been saved. And it all started with a frustrated and heart broken doctor who decided to measure what had never been measured before. Virginia Apgar changed the course of medical history and saved thousands of lives with her simple but ingenious measurement, which became know world-wide as the "Apgar Score."

One cannot improve what one cannot (or chooses not) to measure. Often organizations put measures in place to gauge the effect of their improvement efforts. But many overlook the power of the measurement itself. Simply giving timely and accurate feedback to those who can affect change can transform organizations. Perhaps the health care crisis in which we find ourselves today could have been averted if similar measurements had been put in place for all surgical procedures and hospital administrators. Who knows, what we choose to measure today may change the world tomorrow...

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Change Leaders Embrace Humility

I once heard it said that there is no package as small as a person all wrapped up in themselves. This caution against pride is a bit humorous, but so very true. Not only can pride destroy relationships, corrupt organizations, and prevent personal growth, it can also be a major barrier to transformational change.

First, it is a barrier to change in the life of the one attempting to be a change leader. A change agent full of pride will never be a change leader. Nobody will accept feedback, encouragement, and coaching from a leader full of pride. This is an easy pattern for a leader to slip into, though. A good leader is supposed to have the answers, right? A good leader has experience and education that can enlighten their team, and when the pressure is on to make change quickly a leader must lead by the force of their confidence and pride. The problem of this approach is lack of sustainability. At best the organization won't "own" the change, they will simply comply. At worst the organization will fall apart due to infighting or resignations. The result is the same: half-hearted support of change that will backslide at the first opportunity.

Secondly, pride is a barrier to change in the life of the one who needs to embrace change. "How dare that leader come into this organization and pretend after a few short months that they know how to do my job better than I do!" This is unfortunately an all too common form of resistance to change. While the attitude can be justified any number of ways, in the end its root is pride. Sometimes a resistance to change is little more than offense taken to personal pride. Change is seen as a threat to a person's influence and power base because it levels the playing field between experienced icons and inexperienced newcomers. Just ask the former leaders of General Motors who wrote off the threat of the newcomers at Toyota. GM finance executive Nancy Rottering, who quit in frustration in 1987, said the attitude at headquarters was, “We’re GM. We know everything, we don’t need to change.”

This discussion reminds me of a great little story about a navy captain and lighthouse operator, well dramatized by the clip below (you can download this clip at

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Affecting Positive Chage

Somewhere between Michael Jackson stories this weekend the news media reported on the resignation of Sarah Palin as the Alaska governor. In the clip below Palin talks repeatedly about "affecting positive change," a statement that has resulted in many debates over the airwaves about how an agent of change should go about influencing positive change. While my intent is typically to avoid the morass of politics on this blog, this is just to interesting to ignore. Palin supporter or not, her press conference and follow up interviews have definitely put being a change freak at the top of the news once again.

Watch a clip of the Palin News Conference

Palin begins her comments here repeatedly discussing "affecting positive change" and asserts that she will be able to do this better outside of government. In a later interview with CNN she said she doesn't "need a title to affect change." What do you think? Is a title or position needed to affect change? Certainly one can be a change agent without a title or leadership position. I'm reminded of a tough day I experienced years ago with attending officer training for the US Air Force. I thought I was doing well surviving the vigors of the training when I was called into a one on one meeting with my commanding officer. He bluntly asked what my problem was and stated that I wasn't showing the kind of leadership he expected from me. A bit surprised I responded by telling him that I was waiting until I had the opportunity to be in a formal leadership role at the training to show my leadership ability. Wrong answer. He gave me some advice I will never forget. He said a leader leads regardless of his position or title. A true leader (and change agent?) seeks opportunities to lead where they are, today. I took his admonition to heart and began to look for opportunities to fill a gap or volunteer when others hesitated to step forward.

I've since seen this same principle play out in my business experience as well. Many organizations are tyrannized by the "thems" and the "somebodies." Processes fail and because of the crazy decisions "they" have made, and the organization waits endlessly for "somebody" to do something! It's impossible to quantify the damage that "they" have done to business and the failure of the "somebodies" to do something about it!

Okay, seriously, isn't senior leadership support the key to real, transformational change? Well, certainly affecting change can be much more difficult if you don't have the support of your leadership. And transformational change can be helped along immensely through the active and public support of the organization's senior leadership. Not having senior leadership support can make being a change freak a bit dangerous as well. Business consultant and change freak Tom Peters has been quoted as saying "If you haven't been fired by age 30, you're not pushing your boundaries." I would suspect the firings he refers to has more to do with pushing the boundaries of your leaders than just yourself!

All this aside, you don't have to be a leader with the title and formal authority to affect positive change in your organization. You must have a personal commodity that is far rarer than titles and positions: you have to be willing. Willing to step forward when it would be more comfortable to hide in the crowd. Willing to take a risk by pushing the boundaries. Willing to take the unconventional path when others are cautioning you to slow down or conform. Willing to look in the mirror when others are searching for "them" and "somebody." Willing to be a change freak!

I suppose time will tell if Sarah Palin made a good decision in resigning the governorship of Alaska to "affect positive change." I suspect the most positive change she hopes to affect is to get her family off the firing line of the national media. But while a good point guard may pass the ball when she attracts a crowd, she certainly doesn't leave the game at halftime. Time will tell if this decision was unconventional brilliance or the swan song of a "Maverick." I'm not waiting to see. There's too much positive change to affect right where I am today...

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Tribute to a Founding Father & Change Agent

I thought the Independence Day holiday would be a good time to give tribute to a great change agent in American History: Samuel Adams. US history buffs know Sam Adams. Many of you may have always wondered who the beer was named after. Either way, you will benefit from learning more about this great man who changed history.

Samuel Adams was born in Boston, and lived nearly his entire life in this great city. He struggled to thrive as a businessman and tax collector in the Massachusetts colony, but his experiences brought him face to face with the tyranny of the British crown. A man ahead of his times, he saw storm clouds forming on the horizon of American history, and founded the movement that ultimately resulted in the American revolution. A man who consistently placed liberty for his people ahead of his own freedom and comfort, Sam Adams bore all the marks of a true change agent. Some in his day may have even called him a change freak!

Adams knew well the power of symbolism and inspirational images in encouraging others to change. He adamantly opposed the stamp act of 1765, a tax that sought, for the first time, to tax the internal affairs of the American colonies. The resistance he led was seen as rebellious resistance by loyalists, and an English writer went so far as to mock Adams and his followers as "sons of liberty." Rather than take offense at this characterization, they wore the title proudly and Sons of Liberty organizations followed Boston's lead and sprung up throughout the colonies. They created a slogan that inspired the colonies to resist the stamp act and other non-importation laws: "No taxation without representation!" Led by Sam Adams, the Boston group selected a tree at the center of Boston and named it the Liberty Tree. At this locations crowds gathered and inspirational speeches were given to encourage resistance to the Stamp Act (and a mob or two also started their destruction of the Governor's palace from this location). When the Stamp Act was finally repealed in 1766, thousands gathered at the Liberty Tree to celebrate.

It was at this time of peace and relative quiet that Adams recognized the danger that still loomed for the colonies. Yet as a change agent it was a frustrating time for him, as he saw the movement lose momentum and members in the years that followed. He struggled to bolster patriotic spirits, and his efforts met with a general apathy from neighboring towns. Yet it was during this time that Adams, as a change freak that was not to be deterred, found some of his greatest inspiration. When fellow Sons of Liberty member James Warren returned from canvasing towns throughout Massachusetts, he told Adams "They are dead, and the dead can't be raised without a miracle." To this Samuel Adams responded "Nil desperandum. Never despair. That is a motto for you and me. All are not dead; and where there is a spark of patriotic fire, we will rekindle it." It was just a few short years later that Adam's tireless efforts were rewarded. His circular letters to the other colonies proved to be the foundation of unity when British tyranny proved to be alive and well. He inspired a new nation to seek its Independence and helped change the world!

Change leaders, there will be times when you are frustrated and discouraged. Nil desperandum. Never despair. The change agents that ultimately change the course of history are often men and women who simply refuse to give up. Your tireless efforts today may change the future, even if you are struggling to see the results today.