Cheese, Challenges, and Change: A Look at Leadership Development
Where's the Cheese?
In November of 2013, after years of hearing rave reviews, I finally read Johnson’s (2002) Who Moved My Cheese? as part of my assigned reading for a leadership class through Indiana Wesleyan University. At the risk of sounding arrogant, I told my classmates I fell into the category of first-time readers who “knew the lessons and were already living them” (p. 23). That was through no virtue of my own, though. In fact, those lessons learned had come as a result of total accident and personal failure on just about every level possible.
The “Who moved my cheese?” metaphor applies to many stages of change in my life. At different times and places, I can see myself in all of the characters of the story. Most fitting, though, is the character of Haw, who illustrates the long-term adjustment to change that I have experienced. The first time someone moved my Cheese, I was 18 years old, attending Army AIT. I had all the Cheese I wanted and everything was all planned out. I had my career goals set, and I knew what I was going to do with my life. Then, during training, I received a medical discharge from the military. Suddenly, my Cheese was gone, and I didn’t have a backup plan.
Particularly in that case, I can identify with the Littlepeoples’ sense of loss, betrayal, and outrage. I had pinned my entire future on my military plans, and everything I saw before me revolved around that pile of cheese. Overnight, it seemed, it was gone, and like a Haw, I stood shocked into paralysis, unable to quite comprehend what had “happened to me.”
At first, I didn’t know what to do or where to go, and I returned to my parents’ house to regroup. I spent a few weeks there, looking over my shattered dreams, before I regained the imperative to start moving forward into the unknown. I can identify with Haw’s second-guessing as I hesitantly approached that Maze I thought I’d navigated, which suddenly looked so huge and imposing now that I didn’t know where I was going in it.
So, at 18, I picked up my ego and moved to a different city six hours from my stomping grounds. Like Haw, I thought about turning around and going back to what I knew. I knew there was nothing back there for me, but I longed for the comfort of the known. Like Haw, I left behind a close friend who pulled at my conscience: as I began to reach for a new life, she remained set in her old ways back home. Like Haw, as I ventured further into the Maze, I began to pick up crumbs of hope that began to kindle a vision of New Cheese.
Quite by accident, I came by a full-time job working at the front desk of a Lakota newspaper, and at 18, I discovered what it was like to earn a real paycheck. From there, I started helping out in the sales office and discovered the behind-the-scenes world of media marketing. Then I went a little further and began proofreading materials for print, and I discovered my keen eye for typos. By the time I was 19, I found a whole new Cheese Station I never would have imagined around the next corner of the Maze. The publisher of that newspaper offered me a job as a staff reporter, and within six months, I became the managing editor of the newsroom. Before much longer, I was overseeing the editorial and production staff for three different newspaper offices spread across the Midwest.
Like Haw, when I looked back, I had to laugh at myself. I thought my world had ended with my military discharge, but I had no idea what lay before me, unseen in the corridors of the Maze ahead.
That wasn't the only time someone moved my cheese—it’s happened in a major way about four or five other times in my life—but it was the first time. Like Haw, I looked back and saw where I had gone wrong, and I also began to adapt my thinking to emulate more of a Sniff and a Scurry. I’m not sure how the story played out for Haw after the end of the book, but for me, the process of adaptation has continued over the years. With God's direction and care, I've evolved in such startling, unforeseen ways that I now frequently find myself the forerunner, acting on change before others can even accept that anything is changing.
The sad point of the story, for me, is the number of Hems who fall by the wayside, refusing to come with me. Now that I have found New Cheese—more than once—I know that it’s out there. I know the potential that is laying around, just waiting for those who stay behind. It’s painful to see others rejecting the opportunity to make the discovery for themselves, yet I keep moving forward with the hope that my actions might somehow lead others to Cheese.
Dispositions and Cognition in Change
As the adventures of Hem and Haw illustrate, with most major changes in life, we go through various levels of adjustment, generally involving a Journey of Loss followed by Stages of Gain. For example, I experienced a significant Journey of Loss in early 2010 when the company behind my dream job went out of business. By that time, I was working for a media, marketing, and events firm based in Chicago. Although it wasn’t a field I'd gone looking to get into, I had fallen into the industry, and I loved my work for that company. More importantly, I loved the company culture of giving back to communities and changing the world for those in need.
Unfortunately, the warning signs were there for months in advance as the umbrella company behind my division headed straight off a financial cliff. I saw some of the red flags early on, but I was in such denial that even when my paychecks stopped coming, I kept showing up for work and putting in my 40 hours anyway. Why? Well, I told the people around me that I was standing behind my boss. I believed he would come through for us and the temporary sacrifice would be worth it. I believed the company would pull out of its tailspin, make reparations to its employees, and go on changing the world.
In reality, I just couldn’t accept the fact that I was losing my job. I loved my work too much, and I’d staked too much on that company. I couldn’t face the prospect that I'd made a huge mistake and it was all over.
Along with the denial, I experienced anger at my boss. From my standpoint, his reckless choices had endangered his employees' wellbeing, and he wasn’t as forthright with us about the situation as I felt he should have been. In my fixation on saving my own hide, I was also angry with my boss because I stood by him while his other employees were abandoning ship, and that got me nowhere. In fact, I ended up being the one who lost more in the end because I was the one who stuck around while everybody else bailed. Essentially, I resented my boss for not rewarding my “loyalty,” when in reality, his life was falling apart, too.
During that time, I also went through the bargaining stage with my then-husband. Every week the paycheck didn't arrive, I said something like “If it’s not here next week, I’ll start looking for another job.” And the paycheck kept not coming, and I kept not looking for another job. Every few days, I bargained for just a little more time, hanging on just a little longer to the work I loved... at the expense of my household's financial security. Needless to say, I did a lot of damage to that marriage, effectively choosing my work over my relationship. In the end, I bargained my way into working two full months without pay before I finally asked my boss to lay me off so I could collect unemployment payments.
Then came the depression stage. I not only had to face the loss of my career, I also had to look at the disaster I'd made of my household finances while trying to hang on to my non-paying job. The future was bleak and hopeless without any potential of finding another position like that one in my geographical area, and I saw no chance of recouping the financial security I'd enjoyed with that company.
Finally came the acceptance that I had to do something. A little income was better than no income. So I took the first job I could get. I went from my lucrative career in media/events to a ho-hum part-time position at a local lounge. Meanwhile, I ramped up a freelance business from home and started starting over again.
That humbling experience grounded me in the acceptance of my circumstances, and over time, my outlook began to improve. Before long, I was even able to laugh at myself as I finally came to terms with the fact that I never even really wanted to work in the media field to begin with—I’d just fallen into that line of work when I was discharged from the military, the last time my career plans fell through!
From there, I began a process of rebuilding that eventually resulted in my leaving the media business altogether in 2012 to return to school and begin pursuing ministry opportunities in my community. Today, registered as a Ministerial Student through the Northwest District of The Wesleyan Church, I can look back at that time as the point in my life when I stopped letting life "happen to me" and started getting intentional about my personal and professional goals.
Since that time, I've been experiencing the Stages of Gain, building upon the Journey of Loss to turn a negative into a positive. First I had to adjust, learning to look at my employment situation as an opportunity rather than as a loss. I began to consider the opportunity to re-evaluate my choices and to decide what I really did want to do with my life. At that time, throughout 2011, I began re-connecting with church, which led me to see God’s influence both in and around those choices.
That's not to say everything turned peachy all of a sudden. In fact, on a larger scale, the Journey of Loss had only just begun. In the course of the next year, I experienced divorce, bankruptcy, foreclosure, and homelessness. But at the same time, I was discovering the grace of God, and I was gaining a freedom and a confidence I never knew before. By the end of the whole mess, I lost everything I ever had, and I found everything I ever wanted.
Inspired by Steven Furtick's Sun Stand Still brand of audacious faith, I then began to imagine how I could use all of the skills and abilities I had gained in my past career to focus on fulfilling a new vision for my life. I focused on the communications aspect that I had loved about my work, looking at how much I enjoyed connecting with people, reaching others with a compelling message, and bringing together a community around a central mission. I connected those desires with my inner need to help people, to give back to the community, to make a difference in others’ lives, and to “save the world.” In early 2012, I began to imagine what then seemed like the highly unlikely prospect of my entry into ministry, and the rest is history, as they say.
By the end of 2012, I began to take action, seeking counsel from my pastors to initiate my enrollment into the Biblical Studies program at Indiana Wesleyan University as a second-career ministry student headed to college for the third time. It was a terrifying, exhilarating experience, and I definitely experienced the joy of action as I took off on a leap of faith into a vision that seemed totally crazy to me at the time. I had no idea what I was doing, no idea if any of it would work, and no idea what would happen, and I felt energized in a way I have never experienced in any of my previous work, education, or life pursuits.
I began to see progress as I registered for classes in the spring of 2013 and developed an action plan of goals and requirements to come. More than two years later, I'm still in the progress stage as I work toward completion of my Biblical Studies degree in September of 2015. Moreover, I continue to adjust the course, modifying my plan and my vision as life changes around me. Although I'm still a few years away from achievement of my major goals, I'm experiencing a deeper sense of satisfaction than ever before as I check off the completion of smaller goals leading in that direction.
Even more exciting is the ever-present awareness that once I achieve this vision, that is only the beginning. Once I become a licensed minister, for example, then a whole new life full of new changes and opportunities will open up before me all over again!
Cheese and Change
Back in late 2010, after "my way" of doing things had lost me everything I'd ever worked for, I began adapting my attitudes and actions to follow the direction of a 12-step program of spiritual recovery. Ever since then, I've been blown away, time after time, to discover that those simple principles that came to me so late in life are, it turns out, painted across almost every self-improvement, professional assessment, and leadership development tool in existence. I just managed to overlook the obvious for 26 years of my life, even though I'd excelled at every job I ever had, managed several departments, supervised dozens of employees, and led multiple organizations to various stages of prestige along the way.
For me, it’s been a case of the blue Buick sedan: one never notices how many blue Buick sedans there are in the world until one owns a blue Buick sedan for oneself.
In my case, I never noticed how every self-improvement method out there arises, either directly or indirectly, from some form of spiritual principle. But now that I've gained some spiritual principles for myself, I see them everywhere.
Of course, the better, fresher outlook I've enjoyed as a result of recognizing those principles also results from consistent reinforcement of the lessons learned. In that respect, I found a lot of well-worn fodder for nodding and smiling as I read Who Moved My Cheese? for the first time, quickly recognizing in the characters those all-too-familiar personal barriers that impede personal growth. Like a Haw, every time I look back and see myself, I shake my head and laugh over how much I never knew and how much God has brought my way anyway.
Life as I know it has been in a constant state of change for the last five years, and I don't predict that change stopping any time in the foreseeable future. I’m still adjusting to a full-time program of study and adapting to changes at work that continuously place me in greater positions of responsibility. I’m still settling into marriage as my second husband and I explore our second year of union, and together, we're now settling into our new role as homeowners following the purchase of a house in May. Looking ahead, I see graduations and career shifts and an intensified focus on ministry, somewhere in the midst of which I’ll also be focused on the growth of my new family.
Perhaps I struggle to see a defined use for Johnson's book right now because at this point, I am seeing the Maze from the perspective of a Sniff or a Scurry. When the corridor turns a corner, I will turn with it; when I come to a fork in the road, I will pick a direction. With God as my guide, it really is that simple.
Such simplicity has been an enormous blessing in comparison to the agonizing uncertainty of my Old Cheese way of life. For me, Old Cheese consisted of the prestige and reputation connected with my previous work in the publishing field. I was constantly analyzing status and power dynamics, manipulating people and circumstances to get ahead, and taking reckless financial risks to support my image as a media professional.
Today, my New Cheese is at home with my family. With the counsel of my pastors and my husband, I do have a detailed action plan in place for a series of future education and career goals. However, I have also embraced the joy of living on God’s timetable. That means if my plans don’t work out, I’ll see what He has in store for me instead.
Furthermore, my sense of self and personal value no longer depends upon those education and career goals. My identity and my status are found in my acceptance of myself as a woman of God, living as such to build up my family to change our community and the world around us. I may or may not become any one of the other things on my to-do list—that's all up to future circumstances out of my control—but what I am right now is a wife and a stepmother, and those roles present my New Cheese today.
By making these admissions and priorities, I am, in effect, doing everything that makes me afraid in this stage of change. Back when I thought I had it all together, I completely failed at life. Now that I'm stepping directly into my fears of inadequacy, I'm counting on God’s results. For me, that is certainly a different way of doing things.
The Challenge of Change
What does it take to change a life? According to Lindsay and Smith in their book Leading Change in Your World (2010), the ultimate stage of change is “commitment to continuous improvement” (p. 179). Herein lies the greatest human barrier to meaningful, long-term, sustainable change: most of us are not very good at commitment. Whether considering a commitment to a relationship, a resolution, a job, a degree program, a savings plan, a workout plan, a church group, a service organization, an ultimate goal of destiny, or a daily vitamin, the lives of average people are littered with a lack of follow-through.
Particularly in today’s self-serve consumer culture, the human mind is trained to expect immediate results, short-term gains, and instant gratification. For today’s attention spans, the long-term, big-picture view has become a general inconvenience left to visionaries and dreamers. Perhaps that is why a certain time-worn promotion promises eight-minute abs instead of eight-year abs—because no one really expects the results to last that long.
Way back in 2005, Cowell and Kupritz were already lamenting their perception that today’s emerging leaders “have grown up in an immediate, digitally connected world, being told they can do anything” (p. 5). Therefore, organizations should “not expect a millennial to pay their dues They want what they want right now and are used to getting it” (p. 8).
As evidenced in thousands of pages of biblical lore, we as a species have never been naturally content to simply fulfill what God intended for us. We are always looking for something more, something different, and something else. We grow bored, lose interest, get distracted, and live restless, irritable, and discontent. As Lindsay and Smith describe it, restlessness is the antithesis to commitment:
“Restlessness will result in other obstacles being thrown in the pathway of your pursuit. Restlessness magnifies the obstacles and resistance; creates tension and negative energy for you and others; causes ‘paralysis of analysis’; distracts you from your primary decisions; costs you what patience can save you; takes you where you don’t want to go” (p. 186-187).
Consider Sarai’s restlessness as recounted in the book of Genesis—even a personal promise from God Himself (15:4-5) was not enough to quiet her doubts and impatience. Instead of moving forward in faith of the long-term yield, Sarai went for the short-term shortcut (16:2), bringing all sorts of obstacles, distractions, and unintended consequences down on her family, future generations, and nations to come.
When laying out a purposeful, long-term commitment to change, our human predisposition toward restlessness is in itself the obstacle. In our naïve efforts to help God along, we look for ways to do everything but what He asks of us—to just be faithful and trust Him. Our restless nature leads us to wander when we should just “be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer” (Romans 12:12).
Since commitment is effort, and we grow bored with pursuits requiring effort, our restlessness often leads us to choose the easier, softer way instead of committing to long-term, continuous improvement. For example, in the workplace, it may be easier for a potential leader to find a different job somewhere else than to take on the challenge of effecting meaningful change in the status quo. Worse, when the alternative means taking personal responsibility for circumstances, many individual workers simply choose to remain restless, irritable, and discontent, instead of stepping out of comfort zones to initiate improvement.
According to Jha, Michela, and Noori (1996), continuous improvement “is based on employee participation, usually at all levels across the organization” ( 31) and “employees will resist [continuous improvement] activities if they perceive them to constitute added work” ( 77). Folger and Skarlicki (1997) note that “disgruntled employees may engage in… the withdrawal of citizenship behaviors, psychological withdrawal, and resistance behaviors” (p. 434). In other words, as most of us know, it’s easier to stay put and keep complaining than it is to step out and do something about it.
The concept applies to any outspring of human life: only with the pain of staying the same do most individuals voluntarily rally for change. All too typically, dissatisfaction is left to fester, and restlessness leads us astray. But Christ calls us to do better than that. In Christ, we commit to an unattainable goal: to be like Christ. In Him, we find the daily test of our commitment in every minute of every hour, knowing we can never achieve the ultimate in this life.
What does that mean to us as leaders initiating change? Whether in our organizations or in our personal lives, the challenge of change lies in sustaining a commitment to continuous improvement. Either way, the responsibility lies with us to model the way, just as Christ modeled it for us. Just as we learn to keep our eyes fixed on Christ and remain committed to learning and growing in Him, so we are called to foster a commitment to change in our homes, our workplaces, our communities, and the world around us.
A good leader persuades a team to make a change; a great leader inspires a team to keep changing. And we cannot expect others to do it if we will not do it ourselves.