Culture Change and Adaptability: Learning from the Wisdom of Nature

“The test of courage comes when we are in the minority. The test of tolerance comes when we are in the majority.”  — Ralph W. Sockman

There’s a tree outside my window that is distracting me shamelessly. She has the most gorgeous ball-gown of orange and red, defining the words “takes my breathe away.” As the one tree in my entire block with more than a few stubborn leaves clinging, she gets to be the solo act against a brown and gray backdrop. As if to say “I’ll make my entrance after the others have had their dance.”

Nature provides great lessons about change (and building an adaptable culture) for those who can see them.

There’s so much fear-response to change, especially when the focus is on hard times – such as the current economic downturn.

The question I have been asking is this: Where will “rescue” come from if the leaders of our enterprises and governments and our consumers are in a contracted state of fear and reactivity?  Do we really believe one man with a vision and a powerful office can pull out a magic wand on January 20 and singularly wave away years of over-extended credit and bad decision-making? This sentiment is a silent undertone of Obama’s election, and it feels like a kid asking dad to bail him out of jail and buy off the officer who arrested him for drunk driving. “I don’t want the lesson … it wasn’t my fault … the devil made me do it!”

Don’t get me wrong: As a single mother and small business owner, I am feeling the impact – a firm focused on programs for developing leaders is a bit like fur coats right now. (Even those with money often look for a token cutback.) But I see what’s happening a bit differently from most. I’m pretty excited about the current situation, because finally it feels like there is growing consensus that we must transform basic elements of our corporate, government and personal responsibilities.

Change is a signal to the system it’s time to adapt: To do something different. The temperature falls and signals to the tree to drop its leaves and enter into a rest phase. She draws less water, uses fewer resources, readies herself for a surge of new growth in Spring. She doesn’t resist, cry “fowl” to the condition, or try to figure out who is to blame. This is just not her time to grow — now, she needs to get ready to grow. The fact she is on a later cycle than the others in the neighborhood is not judged harshly for resistance or poor timing by the other trees. There are no consequences to the other trees for her late entry into the Fall dance.

The one thing we can count on about life is the steady appearance of events and situations that wake us up, make us take a second look, and call upon us to take a better path forward: A failed project. A competitor announcing expansion into our territory. A new CEO takes the helm. The economic situation is on a bigger scale, but this is how nature works. If the system doesn’t evolve effectively from the first round of gentle nudges, the consequences get bigger.

The tree — like all living entities tuned into the natural world — is following her purpose and is in complete alignment with it.

The difference between the tree and the human community? We humans have a bit of a love-hate relationship with change. When the “business temperature” drops, we determine whether that’s good or bad by how it impacts us — not a very objective measure. And, the American community in particular is not so good at “resting.” Once we have gotten used to a sales or income cycle, we want it all the time, forever. Even when it violates the most important laws of the land (not the ones made in Washington, the ones the planet operates by, which includes seasons, cycles and endings).

Here’s why I think the “wave of hope” spread across the globe on U.S. election night: We have thrown open a window of opportunity for a new type of leadership. In our little world, we have named this “Renewable Leadership.” For those who are ready to show up and LEAD, never has the timing been better for you. Cycles of change and adaptability among today’s human communities are increasingly interdependent due to technology, globalization, and the internet. The leader who is unafraid of transformation and real change can make big waves that ripple out. These leaders can tune into the interplay between “change” and “adapting,” and see freedom and opportunity in this time, to:

  • Let go of what is not working.
  • Prune back projects and investments that no longer serve a clear purpose.
  • Examine old mindsets and strategies that limit their business.
  • Re-energize your team with fresh “soil” – ie, new tools.
  • Narrow your focus and serve a key customer better.
  • “Peek around corners” for a new market or idea that got lost in “full growth mode.”

Renewable leaders know that adaptation — not fear-based contraction — is the appropriate response to change.  Whether you are an Average Joe or a powerful CEO — you are a renewable leader if you have positive expectations right now. Your collective hope and decisive action is the best kindling for the renewal of our economy.

So come on, Late Trees, show us your colors!  Help us navigate toward a better future. Now is the time for bold and creative action, to put aside worries and step forward. Help your team and your business use this “rest period” to work some magic and prepare for the next cycle of growth. Harness the grand imagination, ingenuity and creativity the human race is known for. Even if your bank account — and those of your shareholders — takes a rest to recover, you may as well be doing something good while it all gets sorted out.

As we approach the Thanksgiving season, I salute my tree and her beauty and her lessons. I remember there is no shortage of abundance … even when fear “kinks the hose” of our ability to live in it.

I stand fully ready to renew myself as a “courageous minority” and make something good happen.

I hope you are too.

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