Mark Twain speaks for most of us when he said, “I’m in favor of progress; it’s change I don’t like.”
But it is a fact—change comes when we least expect it and it happens whether we like it or not. Look over your shoulder at this past year. What changes came your way? How did change occur in your life, your family, your work, your relationships, your health, your community, or even your world?
Change comes and it comes often. It’s not that all change is good (and it’s not all bad, either), but change is inevitable. I’m not talking about change that we choose but change that happens to us. It forces a response like I heard yesterday: “Change or die.”
After my heart attack 20 months ago, the doctor said, “Steve, you have to make some changes.”
He was right. I had to face the fact that I had heart disease. Even if my way of life hadn’t caused my heart attack, I had to respond to it. So today I try to be more careful about what I eat, I exercise more, and I try to keep a more relaxed travel schedule.
In cardiac rehab, however, I was stunned to meet quite a few people who had a different response. Many had experienced heart attacks and undergone heart surgery, yet they didn’t change anything. They didn’t lose weight, they didn’t exercise, they didn’t stop smoking.
Why don’t we change when we know it is good for us? Because it’s hard and it’s uncomfortable and it’s scary.
But that being said, I believe leaders can improve their ability to understand and embrace change. I have been working with CEOs and business owners for more than thirty years. One reoccurring theme has been how to handle disruption and change, and how to lead change. Allow me to use a familiar story from the Bible to talk about the three ways people usually respond to change that is thrust upon them.
One Event, Three Responses
Of all the biblical events that illustrate the drama and dynamic of change, none has more significance than the birth of Jesus. The Bible uses the metaphor of light coming into darkness to describe the moment, which is about as drastic of a metaphor as you can imagine.
So let’s look at how three people responded to that change. See if you can recognize your own “change bent.”
Mary—The Early Adapter
Mary had recently gotten engaged to Joseph, and she was looking at the normal future of being a wife and mother. Then the angel Gabriel appeared to her with this message: “Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you. … You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High” (Luke 1:28, 31-32). No pressure—just raise the Messiah with the scandal of an out-of-wedlock pregnancy on your head.
Her response? After a moment of troubling and wondering, she answers, “I am the Lord’s servant. … May your word to me be fulfilled” (Luke 1:38). In other words, “I don’t know how this will play out, but I’m in and I accept this new role.”
Mary is the model “early adapter.” She said yes to change—huge change—at once and then went about figuring it out.
Joseph—The Hard Sell
Joseph’s buy-in took a little longer. He wanted to figure it out before saying yes to change.
Notice the change that was thrust his way—the realization of “my fiancée is pregnant, and it’s not my baby.” Joseph considers his options—publicly shame her or break the engagement quietly—and he chooses the latter.
Then, a good night’s sleep changes him (like it does me so often). In a dream, an angel appears to him, telling him that the baby is the Messiah. Now, armed with the facts, Joseph embraces the change. He takes Mary as his wife and moves forward with their life together.
Joseph was a hard sell. He was a good guy, but he was not able to think outside the box. He was low on faith and high on rationale; high on control and low on change.
Herod—The Deceptive Resister
King Herod, the ruler of Judea and Galilee at the time, had an optimistic public face but he was actually a defiant resister to the core. Defiant resisters come in two forms. The first type is against change and you know it. The other type is those who are against change but pretend for a season to be with you.
When the Magi (wise men) asked Herod where the King of the Jews was to be born, he put his research team to work. He questioned the chief priests and scribes about Jewish prophecy, and he secretly obtained additional information from the Magi about the exact time the star had appeared. Then he sent the Magi to Bethlehem with these instructions: “Go and search carefully for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him” (Matthew 2:8).
But what was his real intent? To sabotage the change and protect his own power.
The Three Faces of Change
The responses of Mary, Joseph, and King Herod are not unlike how people and organizations today handle the transitions and disruptions that come their way. A new direction is unveiled for your organization, a spouse gets a cancer diagnosis, a key business stakeholder quits suddenly, a top competitor has a breakthrough idea, the youngest child goes off to college and leaves you with an empty nest.
Change can come from any direction. So which are you?
- Early adapters—You don’t understand all the ramifications of the change dealt you, but you jump in—willing to do whatever it takes to adjust. You’re high on trust, and your faith offsets the risk. You’re not naïve to difficulty, but you don’t run from it.
- Hard sells—Like Joseph, you need time to get used to the idea of the change and need information to help you understand why the change is necessary. Once sold, you, too, become an active participant. (In an ideal organization, you probably want a few early adapters and a few hard sells. They balance each other out well.)
- Resisters—Perhaps you’re a natural resister. You’ll talk about change as a good thing, even research it and its implications, but you know that below the surface, you’re hoping you can force business as usual.
How do you know which type you are? Consider your first response when someone—whether a spouse, a boss, a subordinate—points out a dramatic change. This change is not optional, but is something that has happened.
Is your response, “Wow. This is happening. I need to get on board, trusting that it is good and will work out favorably” (Mary?) Or “Hmmm … this is not what I want or was expecting. I need to dig deeper to understand what and why this happening.” (Joseph?) Or “This is not good for me and I need to figure out how to beat it or subvert it.” (Herod?)
You can probably guess what I’d recommend. Push yourself more and more to respond like Mary. Take a deep breath and a step of faith into the new reality.