NUGGET : Idealism is critical fuel for change and an important force for leaders to recognize and support – especially when it meets the often refiner’s fire of challenge from the status quo.

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I hear the media commenting in critical tones, that President Obama is finally setting a more “realistic” agenda, tempering his vision and accepting what he cannot change. But without intending to make any point about the CONTENT of the political climate in the US, I can’t pass up a teaching point about large system change: people who lead significant change can only do so with an initially radical agenda. Idealism is critical fuel for change – even though the full cycle of change may take years or even decades.

Every major social and organizational change starts outside the mainstream.

It challenges and rankles the status quo.  In its early stages, most people may call the change idealistic, naïve, even subversive or dangerous. Think about the earliest stirrings of the civil rights movement in the US (even before the Abolishionists) or the still smoldering popular movements in the Middle East. Look at the evolution of social security, personal computers, and closer to home for me and my home country in the 80’s and 90’s, the end of apartheid. Think of the changes happening now around many organizations as they transition from pyramid/top down ways of operating to horizontal supply chains and networks.

The course of change is a grand battle between the status quo and the new. In that battle, a new idea emerges, is continually tested, often temporarily defeated, and sometimes rises again in stronger or more refined forms. Sometimes the new idea proves to be a bad one or doesn’t really solve an important problem, and is sent to the graveyard of failed experiments. But the important point is this: every big change needs idealistic, visionary, passionately committed proponents. Their idealism and passion may seem, or even be, naïve. After all, “nobody who really knows physics would ever suggest such a radical idea as a flying machine.”

I’d like to end this thought piece with Steve Jobs’ quote about the role of idealism. I will have more to say about this in future blogs where we look at how large system change really progresses over time – and sometimes it DOES take time – more than the 24 hour news cycle, a president’s term of office, or even a lifetime:

Here’s to the crazy ones. The misfits. The rebels. The troublemakers. The round pegs in the square holes. The ones who see things differently. They’re not fond of rules, and they have no respect for the status-quo. You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify, or vilify them. But the only thing you can’t do is ignore them. Because they change things. They push the human race forward. And while some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius. Because the ones who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who do.
Steve Jobs


2 Replies to “Idealism and Leading Change”

  1. Pat,
    there are so many examples of what you say. I wonder if it applies to “backward” steps. E.g. Hitler’s rise, Pol Pot, i.e. those who’s vision and idealism really want to maintain the status quo or reverse some ongoing change movement, e.g. recent Popes and Vatican II reforms?

  2. This is an interesting point! It takes energy to maintain the status quo or to change it. I suppose that whether any ideal is a reversal or progress is a matter initially of interpretation. But over time, I think it’s about what survives, thrives, and manages to make the best use of all the resources around…with the least long-term arousal of antagonistic energies. I think authoritarian and fascist forces fail on the latter point. What do you think?

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