Friday, April 19, 2013

Being a Change-Agent, 42-Style

Note: This is the final post in a 3-part series focusing on the recent film 42, which chronicles the early baseball career of Jackie Robinson.

What does it mean to be a “change agent,” one who enacts change in a system?  How does one bring about change in an organization or institution or culture?  What does it take?  To be honest, I have wrestled with this idea of being a “change agent” for a number of years.  I come from a religious tradition that abhors change, more so than most.  “We’ve never done it that way” and “We’ve never tried that” are not defensive mechanisms or organizational checkpoints; they are doctrinal dispositions that must be adhered to in order to be considered orthodox.  Yet, had a change in the religious system not been enacted, bacon would still be illegal to eat and the Christian religion would have never left Palestine.  Change is not a bad thing.  It is only bad when it is brought about for the incorrect reason.

There are plenty of good books on change and leadership dynamics already circulating.  You may want to pick up Os Hillman’s Change Agent: Engaging Your Passion to be the One Who Makes a Difference, John Ellett’s The CMO Manifesto: A 100-Day Plan for Marketing Change Agents, David Hutton’s classic The Change Agent’s Handbook: A Survival Guide for Quality Improvement Champions, or Agents of Change: Strategy and Tactics for Social Innovation by Sanderijn Cels, Jorrit De Jong and Frans Nauta.  There are also plenty of good web-based leaders, such as George Couros and the folks at Global Grassroots, who are encouraging and implementing cultural and social change.  My purposes here are simpler.

At its core, 42 is more than a baseball movie.  As I mentioned earlier this week, 42 is a sports film in that its uses sports as a metaphor for life.  42 is not just a baseball movie that chronicles the “box score” of Jackie Robinson’s life; it narrates the struggle against injustice and oppression.  In many ways, Branch Rickey and Jackie Robinson, at least as they were portrayed in the film, were kindred souls.  To that end, they teach us 4-5 lessons about what it takes to be a change agent:
  1. Awareness—Leaders and change agents have an awareness that something is wrong with the system.[1]  In 42, Rickey tells Robinson that he has always felt that something was wrong with the way that African Americans were treated, especially in sports.  He recounts a story from his days at Ohio Wesleyan College when he regretted not doing more to help a black teammate that had deeply impacted him.[2]  Although it would be forty years before he could finally do something about this, Rickey never forgot the awareness that was stirred within him.
  2. Tough—One of the most compelling scenes in 42 is not when Phillies manager Ben Chapman lashes Robinson with a profanity-laced verbal tirade that forces Robinson into a rage in the dugout only to be calmed by Rickey.  That scene is powerful, yet not as powerful as when Rickey stirs up Robinson earlier in the film in their famous 1945 meeting.  It pains Rickey to use such derogatory language, yet he does so because he needs Jackie to understand the gravity of the situation.  Edwin Friedman says that leadership breaks down and change stalls when we fail “to define a position.”[3]  Rickey did not spare cultural sensitivity, as we are so prone to do today.  Change would not come by being sensitive; it would only come by having “the guts not to fight back.”
  3. Humor—In my experience, humor is the trait often least developed in leadership.  Yet humor can defuse a tense situation or rally an audience behind a speaker (Proverbs 25:11 anyone?).  Sherly Sandberg writes, “Humor can be an amazing tool for delivering an honest message in a good-natured way.”[4]  When criticized by his own advisors about the legitimacy of his idea to integrate baseball, Rickey simply replies, lighting up his cigar with a smile on his face, “Robinson’s a Methodist.  I’m a Methodist.  God is a Methodist.”  Situation defused.
  4. Vision—Vision and awareness are not the same thing.  Awareness is realizing that something is amiss; vision is actually doing something to resolve the situation.  Rickey had a vision—racial integration in baseball.  However, he could not simply pick any ballplayer.  He had to pick the right ballplayer, the one who could stand the jeering and the hatred and the threats.  He had to pick the ballplayer who would respond with soaring homeruns and fantastic fielding rather than balled fists and vicious words.  “Preparation is a major part of vision,” writes Dan Southerland.  “Vision is not just a destination; it is a journey.”[5]  Leaders lead not only for the moment but also for the long haul.
  5. Empowerment—Max DePree says that leaders who bring about change “enable others to express their own gifts.”[6]  As I mentioned above, Branch Rickey needed the right ballplayer.  He needed someone with strength, skill, speed, stamina, and a smile.  Jackie Robinson had all of these things.  Rickey trusted Robinson and Robinson trusted Rickey in return.  Leaders who want to bring about change in their culture or system must empower others around them. 

Malcolm Gladwell says that change is never more than a “tipping point” away, and that it is the little things that will push change over the edge.[7]  I think he’s correct.  Branch Rickey and Jackie Robinson proved it.

[1]Ronald A. Heifetz, Leadership without Easy Answers (Cambridge, MA/London: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1994), 207-208.
[2]Chuck Landon, “Robinson Celebrated Thanks to Ohio Native,”; accessed 19 April 2013.
[3]Edwin H. Friedman, A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix, new ed. (New York: Seabury Press, 2007), 133.
[4]Sheryl Sandberg, Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2013), 86.
[5]Dan Southerland, Transitioning: Leading Your Church through Change (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1999), 20.
[6]Max DePree, Leadership is an Art (New York: Dell Publishing, 1989), 78.
[7]Malcolm Gladwell, The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference (New York/Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 2000), 12. 

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