I was in high school during the last years of the Vietnam War, and I was struggling with my conscience as my 18th birthday approached and I became eligible for the draft. Luckily, history spared me this choice and the war ground to an end before I had to face the possibility of fighting in a conflict I deeply opposed.
My most powerful memory of that time came from a discussion I had with my English Teacher, Mr. Orr. He was our resident “hippy” teacher and was as happy as any kid in the school when the dress code was modified to allow boys to grow long hair – after which he grew his long as well. Mr. Orr was a teacher I could confide in about my misgivings about the War. I knew he would be sympathetic to my concerns. I told him I was researching conscientious objector status and even considering leaving the country.
Mr. Orr, in the most unexpected way, challenged my thinking. He said, “Jim, if you don’t like war, join the army.” This advice was stunning to me, and I found it perplexing and disappointing. More than anything I wanted Mr. Orr’s blessing and support to evade the war. But in the years since I’ve returned to this conversation with Mr. Orr many times to tease out the meaning of what he said.
When we are unhappy with the direction of an organization, our first impulse may be to flee. But organizations need people who stay and fight too. Maybe by joining the Army I could have saved lives by being in a position of influence to tamp down some of the needless violence of the War. Maybe if I had joined the Army I could have asked “what are we doing here?” “Is this helping anyone?” “Is lobbing that next grenade going to make us safer?” Maybe by getting inside the Army I could do more good than by walking up and down Main Street with a protest sign.
And, maybe joining the Army would have been a terrible idea. Maybe I would have been utterly powerless and frustrated, maybe I would have challenged authority one too many times, and maybe I would have gotten swept up in the madness and killed. I’ll never know.
Most of us will be faced with this “to be or not to be” question in our career. If I don’t like what’s going on where I am – my culture, my job, my family – should I stay and fight “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” or should I head to greener pastures and find a more comfortable place, more in line with my values?
If everyone chooses the latter, we end up with bland organizations that don’t change, and which reinforce their cultures and behaviors through groupthink. Maybe you should stay in that bad situation and try to make it better.
Or, maybe you should get out before the bombs start exploding around you, to find a safer and happier place.
What matters is that you ask yourself the question – and answer it from the highest possible motivation.