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In recent blog entries I have addressed the counter-intuitive topic of self-change. The basic argument is that we change the world by changing ourselves. When we clarify our highest purpose and when we align with our deepest values, we produce a new or best self and the world has to respond.
In his book, The Path of Least Resistance, Robert Fritz argues that the clarification of purpose changes how we function. He speaks of two kinds of choices. A primary choice involves specific results. A fundamental choice is a decision about our state of being or basic life orientation. He gives an example. He says that there are people who make the primary choice to get married. Yet some never make the fundamental choice to be married. A fundamental choice clarifies our identity and animates our energy and changes how we behave.
Fritz states; “When people make a fundamental choice to be true to what is highest in them, or when they make a choice to fulfill a purpose in their life, they can easily accomplish many changes that seemed impossible or improbable in the past.”
When we finally do make a commitment to a fundamental purpose, that commitment itself is transformational. It immediately alters how we see the world and how we behave. A business example may be helpful.
I remember a man–I’ll call him Garrett–who attended my Leading Change Course in the Executive Education Program at the Michigan Business School. He was a company president. During the first three days of the course, he said very little. On Thursday morning, he asked if we might have lunch together and I agreed. Over lunch he told me that if he had attended my course any time in the last five years, he would have felt like he was wasting his time. He had successfully turned around two companies and felt he knew everything there was to know about leading change.
He told me, he was now a lot more humble. There were five companies in his corporation. He had turned two of them around and was seen as the star among the presidents. He had earned the right to lead the largest company in the corporation. The current president of that largest company still had, however, eighteen months left until his retirement.
In the meantime Garrett had been asked to try his hand at one more turnaround. There was a company in the corporation that was considered hopeless. It had once commanded a large market share for its product. Today, it had only a small percent of the market and was still shrinking. Nobody believed this company could be turned around, so if Garrett failed in his efforts, no one would hold it against him.
It had now been twelve months since he took on the challenge. He felt defeated. Everything that had worked for him before, everything his past had taught him, failed in the present situation. Morale was dismal. The numbers were dismal. The outlook for the future was dismal.
I asked Garrett what he thought he would do next. On a paper napkin he listed his short-term objectives. He began to draw an organizational chart. He described the people in each of the senior positions and described the assignments and/or changes he was going to make in regard to each person on the chart. I found his answers unexciting. There was no commitment or passion in what he was telling me. Yet it was clear that Garrett was a man of character with a sincere desire to succeed. I took a deep breath and asked a hard question.
“What would happen if you went back and told those people the truth? Suppose you told them that you have been assigned as a caretaker for a year and a half. No one believes the company can succeed and no one really expects you to succeed. You have been promised the presidency of the largest company, and the plan is to put you into the plum job. Tell them that you have, however, made a fundamental choice. You have decided to give up that plum job. Instead, you are going to stay with them. You are going to bet your career on them and you invite them to commit all the energy and goodwill they can muster into making the company succeed.”
I was worried that I might have offended Garrett. I half expected an angry response. He looked at me for a moment, then it was his turn to take a deep breath. To my surprise and relief, he said, “That is pretty much what I have been thinking.” He paused, and in that moment I watched him make the fundamental decision. Almost immediately, he picked up the napkin and started doing a re- analysis. He said, “If I am going to stay, then this person will have to go; this person will have to be moved over here; and this person…”
As he talked, there was now an air of excitement in Garrett’s words. In real-time, he had made the fundamental decision to stay, and everything changed. Garrett had made a fundamental choice, and now he had a new life stance, a new outlook, and a new way to behave. The organization chart that made sense a few moments before now made no sense at all. None of the original problems had changed but Garret had and this made all the difference in the world.
Clarifying our purpose and committing to pursue the highest in us is transformational. While Garrett would not have admitted it at the time, prior to making his fundamental choice, he had been reacting to circumstances, not acting from a core of commitment and personal beliefs. He had been offered an attractive external reward: the presidency of the largest company. The natural reaction had been for him to do whatever he was asked in order to secure that reward. Until he was faced with making his fundamental choice, it had not occurred to him that in taking the short-term assignment and in making no commitment to the sick company he was choosing to live a divided life.
Lacking that fundamental choice, Garrett had actually been selling short all the people who worked for him in the turnaround company, to say nothing of their families and the community that depended on the company to succeed. Without Garrett’s commitment, everyone in that organization was marching to a slow death. Garrett’s lack of commitment was only continuing that process and inviting that experience of failure into his own life. Making his fundamental choice about staying, and telling his employees the truth, placed him in a very different position. No longer a mere reactor, he had chosen to live undivided, and in the process he became a primary, creative force that would drive the whole organization toward success.
It’s important to recognize, however, that making a fundamental choice of this kind is not a gimmick or a technique: “The choice to be the predominant creative force in your own life does not mean forcing yourself into a different view of reality, nor is it a form of self-manipulation through willpower, a change of ‘attitude,’ a motto to recite, an affirmation to make, or a posture to assume. It is a choice. It comes from a desire to be the predominant creative force in your own life; not out of need, or out of conflict, nor even out of the circumstances; but because that is what you want (Fritz, 1989).”
We all want to experience ourselves as a creative force. That’s when we are most influential and happy. The problem is that the normalized world will always entice or threaten us into mindless choices. The normalized world will take us to the routine, unexamined response. When this happens, we focus on the external and forget to examine the internal. We become driven by circumstance and begin to live as a divided self.
Fundamental choices do not shift with circumstance. Once we make such a choice, we stick to it even if we are angry, frustrated or depressed. It does not matter if we are winning or losing, if we are surrounded by supporters or detractors, our choice remains the same. We pursue it even when it is inconvenient or uncomfortable to do so. This kind of choice and this kind of action reflects who we are. And the choice we have made becomes an internal compass, showing us the way. It allows us to behave creatively at times when others would simply conform, falling into habitual patterns that have no creative challenge.
- Garrett had turned around two companies and considered such work his strength. Why was he failing?
- What is a fundamental decision and why is it transformational?
- What fundamental decision is your conscience calling you to make?
- How could we use this passage to create a more positive organization?