Make that change…

I have the great privilege of visiting many different organisations during the course of my work.  They all have one thing in common regardless of whether they are in the public or private sector, large or small, great or striving, front line or leadership.  There is not a meeting that passes which doesn’t mention the word ‘change’.  It is their Sword of Damocles. For those of you unfamiliar with this wonderful ancient metaphorical tale let me explain…

The metaphor of the Sword of Damocles
In the fourth century BC the tyrannical ruler of Syracuse, the Greek area of what is now known as southern Italy was Dionysius.  Like rich, powerful people throughout history he had sycophants in his court that flattered him and inflated his ego.  They lavished praise on his wealth, power and lifestyle and of course his judgement.  Damocles was one of these courtiers.  After giving one piece of ingrationation too many Dionysius said ‘If you think I’m so lucky then how would you like to try out my life’, or words to that effect. 

Damocles readily agreed to the swap, well who wouldn’t want to experience the high life and so Dionysius made the preparations.  The lavish lifestyle was all that Damocles had hoped for and all was well until that is, he noticed a sharp sword hanging by a horse hair thread which hovered over his head wherever he went.  This, explained Dionysius, was what life as a ruler was really like.  Alarmed by the risks involved Damocles decided to return to his poorer, but safer, former role.

You can examine this story from two perspectives.  Firstly, from his point of view, Damocles was suddenly able to appreciate that his new role could be highly risky:  he understood the benefits of his step change in lifestyle but suddenly the risks outweighed the gains.  A lesson well learnt – be careful what you wish for!
But, perhaps more interestingly, why did Dionysius create the sword.  How many Leaders, managers or holders of office create a ‘Sword of Damocles’ to hold over the head of anyone who shows initiative and innovation which might threaten their position?  Was Dionysius cleverly scaring off any challenger to his authority? 

At a Health Conference we organised recently one of the speakers challenged the audience to make her role redundant within the next two years by which time her hope was that the programme she was leading would be embedded in people’s working practices.  This would also mean massive benefits for the health and wellbeing of over 5 million people.  Her attitude was that this change will be accomplished; job done; bring on the next project.  Many in her audience on the other hand could only see Swords hanging over their own heads.  Along with the benefits came a risk; for some their organisations would have to provide a different type of service, they would have to work differently and their focus would need to shift.

What enables some people to see themselves wearing a laurel wreath of victory on their head while others see only a sword hanging by a thread over theirs?  

It seems to depend on how we view change – is it something to be embraced; offering great opportunity and benefit or is it something to fear and keep us where we are? Well, I think that depends on your mindset.

I hear so often ‘we are change weary’ or ‘this organisation is like a tanker; a change in direction takes a long time’ and other such clichés that have become prevalent in people wanting to avoid personal responsibility.   The reality is we can only bring about change if we are all willing to accept the risks and responsibilities, but with that come the benefits and the opportunities.  If we agree things are not perfect now (and there are few situations that are) then surely the only option is change.

I’m Starting With The Man In The Mirror
I’m Asking Him To Change His Ways
And No Message Could Have Been Any Clearer
If You Wanna Make The World A Better Place
Take A Look At Yourself, And Then Make A Change

Michael Jackson