When I write about “respect” there’s an element of the concept that often gets overlooked, and that’s respect for the institution. If you can’t respect the institution, then get another institution. Life is way, way too short to either be stuck someplace that you can’t respect or to be an anchor on the organization or the institution because you’re in the back grousing. You’re not doing yourself or anybody else any good if you’re sticking around like a square peg in a round hole.
We see this kind of disrespect for the institution a lot in organizations that are transforming. Transformation is very difficult for some people, and the turmoil that accompanies transformation generates significant emotion. This is not to say that all change is good, or that everyone should simply smile and accept change without question. Sometimes changes are not good changes. Sometimes change is necessary. It’s good to fight for change, it’s good to put forward your ideas, even if you’re going against the grain, but at some point we all have to go “Find Earth.” The phrase, “Find Earth” is an idea I borrowed from from my favorite sci-fi TV show, Battlestar Galactica. While I loved the 1978 edition, I’m particularly fond of the 2005 version.
Commander Adama and the School Teacher
If you don’t know the story, Battlestar Galactica is a takes place hundreds of thousands of years in the past. The human race is wiped out by the Cylons, and a small remnant of survivors set off across the stars in a convoy of spaceships led by the sole surviving warship (the Battlestar Galactica) to go find the mythical planet of Earth as their new home. In the pilot, the surviving Secretary of Education now-President of the Colonies Laura Roslin (Mary McDowell) looks at Commander Adama (Edward Olmos), the Galactica’s commander, and asks him what are his intentions. It is a “reality check” discussion for her, but he can’t see it yet. Commander Adama is determined to get back into the fight. He’s at war and most if not all of his comrades and friends are likely dead. He’s going to go down swinging.
Part of the reason Adama is so intent on disregarding the president and so focused on getting back into the fight is he doesn’t respect the institution Roslin now represents. In his mind, Roslin is merely a “school teacher” and not the president. Neither her orders nor her advice are to be taken seriously. In response, President Roslin straightens her suit and says, “I don’t know why I’m the one that has to keep telling you this, but the war’s over, we lost.” It was only later after her words sunk in that Adama realized that she was right. He also realizes that people need something to live for beyond mere survival – finding the mythical 13th Colony of “Earth.”
Time and time again in both my work as an Air Force officer and a consultant, I hear about “transformation fatigue.” It’s cited by people up and down an organization that have been through multiple changes in organization and (usually) had that change poorly explained or poorly executed. Sometimes to the people “on the line” some “school teacher” comes along every few years with a good idea, and then everyone’s lives are turned upside down. It’s exhausting. It’s also unnecessary.
Good leaders can drive change by giving people a reason to change, something to live for rather than merely endure. What we have to do is metaphorically go find Earth. We have to live through the change, we have to lead the change we can lead, fight the good fight.
If you’re opposed to a certain change, and the war’s over and you lose, then you must move on and go find earth. That’s what “respect for the institution” means when you’re transforming. It doesn’t mean kowtow, it doesn’t mean compromising your values, it doesn’t mean don’t fiercely advocate for your position. What it does mean is once the decision is made, you have to either lead, follow, or get out of the way.
If you can’t respect the institution for whatever reason, good or bad, then go find another institution. Go find another place where you’re happy, and the institution will be happy and make room for someone else.
Mickey is an expert in leadership and organizational change. During his 30 year US Air Force career Mickey commanded thousands of Airmen, managed portfolios worth billions of dollars, and worked with