Change Comes from the Inside

I graduated from high school (okay, don’t look so surprised) in 1974, at the tail end of the Vietnam War.

Like many in my generation, I struggled with my values regarding this war and my possible role in it.  The draft was still in effect, and I was draftable age.

I sought out a wonderful teacher, Don Orr, who had been a challenging mentor to me, and I asked for his advice.  I told him I might seek status as a conscientious objector to avoid going to Vietnam.

His response surprised me. It resonates through these past 36 years in many ways:

“Jim, if you don’t believe in war, join the Army.”

I didn’t like the answer at the time, and I still find the concept challenging.  But it holds deep wisdom. Mr. Orr knew that change can sometimes be imposed from outside of an organization, but that real, lasting change happens when people inside decide it’s necessary.

As we become painfully aware of the failures of our bankers and our oil companies to protect the public from the negative consequences of their risky and self-serving behavior, we recognize the need to regulate and police them.

If you don’t believe in war, join the Army.

But we also recognize, perhaps despairingly at times, that in order for these companies to become responsible citizens, a critical mass of their employees must decide that getting rich doesn’t justify criminal and irresponsible behavior. And then these employees must have the courage to act on their beliefs — within corporate cultures that emphatically reward conformity.

I’m convinced that legions of BP employees are deeply embarrassed and disturbed by the Gulf oil spill. I hope the leadership of the company is hearing from them. And I wonder if more people who really care about the world should be seeking jobs at BP instead of working at Starbucks, or even in the Peace Corps.  Because BP will only change when people at BP decide it must. “If you think the oil industry lacks a moral compass, join the oil industry.”

Thanks, Mr. Orr, for making me think. The Vietnam War ended before I had to face my dilemma, but I have found myself wondering over all these years what might happen if we had an army of men and women committed to finding an end to war.

YOUR PATH FORWARD: Ask yourself, “What team, organization, or movement do I, as an outsider, think needs to change? What might be possible for me to challenge it from the inside?”

About the Author

Jim Hessler
Jim Hessler bootstrapped his way from retail work into a successful career as salesman, sales manager, Fortune 500 executive, and corporate turnaround engineer. Along the way, he developed The Leadership Platform, a proven model for training managers to become sustainably better leaders. It became the basis of his leadership primer, Land On Your Feet, Not On Your Face: A Guild to Building Your Leadership Platform. Jim is the founder of Path Forward Leadership Development Services.

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