In my new book, Leading Out-of-the-Box Change, I talk about the normal resistance many, if not most, people, have to contend with in getting major change initiatives accomplished in their organizations and their lives. As I say in the book, experience has taught me that fear – for example, of failing to perform up to standard, of being exposed as inadequate in some important way – is often at the heart of the resistance that can impede or even halt change. Now, since I write and speak about how to lead and manage high-stakes, complex change, I really wish I could hold myself up as a model for angst-free change, but, alas, I must, truth be told, number myself among the normal human beings who find changing in important ways immensely challenging.
I re-learned this about myself over the past month in the process of making the decision to return this coming May to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, where I served for three years as a Peace Corps teacher, for a ten-day visit. This will be my first trip to Addis since returning to the States for graduate school in 1967. I’ll be reuniting with a former student, Tesfagiorgis Wondimagegnehu, who, along with another student, Tariku Belay, lived with me and my Peace Corps housemates in Addis for two years. The die is cast: I’ve purchased my round-trip ticket and booked a room at the historic Ghion Hotel in Addis. I know it’s the right thing for me to do at this point in my life, and my wife Barbara, my kids Jenny and William, and my siblings have been tremendously supportive.
But, believe me, in taking this out-of-the-box initiative, I’ve had to contend with some major-league internal resistance. There are the usual suspects, of course: nagging questions about whether I’m being hopelessly self-indulgent or whether I can really afford to take the time off work in such a challenging business environment. But lying awake in the middle of the night not long ago, it came to me that the anxiety I was feeling had less to do with practical business concerns than with that familiar old demon, fear of failing. You know, what’s insidious about that old demon fear is that it can all too easily masquerade as what appear to be very practical, eminently rational reservations. So you can, if you’re un-self-aware, stifle change without realizing that you’re giving in to fear. You’re probably saying to yourself, “That may be so, but how can you turn your impending trip back to Ethiopia into an opportunity to fail at something? What could you possibly fail at?” Strange as it might seem, I’m positive that, being a writer as well as a consultant, I’ve conjured up the possibility of falling short in writing something really good – one or more articles, or even a book – about my upcoming Ethiopian adventure. That’s the bad news. The good news is I’m going; it’s too important to let cleverly masqueraded fear win so easily!
Now, I’d like to tell you a bit more about the story leading up to my decision to return to Addis after almost half a century. Tesfagiorgis and I had managed to stay in touch after my return to the States in 1967, while he earned his undergraduate degree at what was then known as Haile Selassie University and launched his public management career, but we lost track of each other as the revolution that toppled Emperor Haile Selassie in the early 1970s turned into a reign of terror under the dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam. Now and then, as the decades passed, I’d ask Ethiopians I met in this country about Tesfagiorgis and Tariku, but no one could tell me anything. Much as I hated to, I eventually had to admit that they’d probably perished, along with hundreds of thousands of other victims of the Mengistu regime.
So the years passed, and in the fall of 2007, checking voice mail in my hotel room in Seattle before heading downstairs to the ballroom where I was speaking, I found a message from Tariku Belay, asking me to call if I was, indeed, “the Mr. Douglas Eadie” who’d taught at Tafari Makonnen School in the 1960s. Returning the call, I learned that Tariku was teaching in a high school in Minneapolis. Hearing about his harrowing odyssey to the States – escaping from prison, becoming a refugee in Sudan – I realized it was a miracle he was alive and well in Minneapolis. What about Tesfagiorgis? Tariku said he’d been out of touch with him for years and had no idea of his whereabouts.
In March 2011, the day before I was to catch a plane to Minneapolis to spend a day with Tariku before speaking at a conference, he called to share breathtaking news: he’d located Tesfagiorgis, who was living in Addis. Tesfagiorgis and I talked by phone that very afternoon, and we’ve corresponded frequently in the year since then. It turns out that Tesfagiorgis had also been imprisoned for two years in Addis Ababa and had come within a hair of being executed.
Returning to Ethiopia this coming May is an out-of-the-box change initiative that I really do believe will enrich my life. I’m truly grateful that I was able to get the best of old demon fear this time, but it surely won’t be the last time we’ll be doing battle as my change journey continues.