Welcome Some Disruption in Your Life

We have nothing to fear but the fear of change (with apologies to the wise Franklin D. Roosevelt). But we must get over that if we hope to make a real difference.
Nov 01, 2007


Sander A. Flaum
I remember the moment well. Three friends and I were nervously pacing around, about to make a big presentation before 800 fellow students in the auditorium at Boys High School in Brooklyn. Mr. Rampel, our English teacher, tried to allay our anxieties by saying that the two biggest human fears are death and public speaking.

Mr. Rampel was wrong. The single biggest human fear, experience tells me, is the fear of change. We tremble at the prospect of change on the horizon: starting a new school as a small child, going off to college and then graduating from college, beginning a new job or getting a new boss or coping with the uncertain (and inevitably changing) environment of a corporate takeover, getting married or cutting the marital cord.

For those of you who haven't read Who Moved My Cheese? by Spencer Johnson, MD, I have two words of advice: Read it! Then step back and analyze your own workday. How much of it is filled with never-changing, always-predictable, seldom-mind-stretching activities? Do you always go to work toting the same coffee bought from the same corner café and then check your voicemail and e-mail and attend the same innocuous meetings and hear (and say) the same things, and on and on? Do you view your job—or company or industry—as a static, paint-by-numbers canvas on which your biggest challenge is to stay within the lines? Do you crave the comfort of the known?

Welcome to the club. You're not alone. But step back once again and ask yourself, "What kind of legacy do I want to leave?" Do you want to be remembered as someone who just helped make the trains run on time? Or do you want to leave a mark and be remembered as someone who truly made a difference in some way—in your family or your job or wherever?

To make a difference, you'd better overcome your fear of change. In fact, you'd better be willing to shake things up. True leaders don't just welcome change, they revel in it.

Take a look at some of today's top corporate-change advocates. There was no obvious need for an iPod. Steve Jobs felt the product would fill an unrealized desire, and he disrupted the fields of both music sales and portable technology in the process. Boeing CEO James McNerney cites openness to change as essential to success. AIG's president, Martin Sullivan, warns, "A strategy and budget prepared six months ago may not be valid today. Always watch the environment—don't manage a plan that's out-of-date." HP CEO Mark Hurd and IBM CEO Samuel Palmisano have attained mastery at overseeing the exquisite execution of innovative strategies.

Such visionaries remain alert to the changing dynamics of their industries and their companies. They recognize that those not willing to change become obsolete quickly.

I'm constantly urging my MBA candidates at Fordham to become change agents, to dare to dream. In one class, the challenge was to come up with an idea that would disrupt an industry by creating a totally new product or service. One team of students developed a brilliant idea to disrupt the parking industry—a software system whereby people coming into New York City could reserve a space at a parking garage in advance. Today, it is a viable business.

Most agree that fear of change is a natural human tendency, but if you can overcome that fear, you stand the biggest chance of leaving the most lasting legacy. That said, you don't have to change everything in your life. That same daily cup of coffee from the same corner café may be just what you need to give you the energy to change with a changing world.

Sander A. Flaum is managing partner of Flaum Partners and chairman, Fordham Graduate School of Business, Leadership Forum. He can be reached at