Often those most identified with the status quo have the most power to change it.
You may not have taken much notice of the recent dueling op-eds written by two high-powered Republicans, Gov. Rick Perry of Texas and Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, but their squabble is more than just two wannabe presidential candidates trying to score points with the Republican base. It offers an excellent lesson in leadership and being a “change agent,” in both business and politics.
At the core of this Republican intramural struggle is Rand Paul’s effort to be an agent of change and Rick Perry (photo below) staunchly defending the status quo.
Since the end of World War II, the mainstay of Republican foreign policy has been uncompromisingly interventionist, a “policeman of the world” mentality. The Republicans have consistently used this aggressive stance to paint the Democrats as “weak on defense” and taking actions (or non-actions) that weaken America and put the country at risk. It is an old song, based on old ways, but the Republicans – especially the far-right – have stuck to it and it has become a litmus test for any would-be Republican leader. During the “Cold War” this strategy did appeal to most Americans – especially to those who viewed themselves as conservative.
But times and attitudes have changed. The threats to American security have morphed from armies composed of masses of asses to cells of rag-tag terrorists. The lessons of Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan should have taught us that legions of “boots on the ground” and “shock and awe” are tactics no longer effective in dealing with new millennium threats to American security.
Indeed, most Americans have learned this lesson. A recent Pew Research survey discovered that for the first time in decades the majority of us are opposed to traditional military intervention in foreign disputes. The research revealed that even 52 percent of rank-and-file Republicans now oppose the traditional “boots on the ground” American involvement in regional conflicts.
As much as the “establishment” of the Republican Party recognizes that the majority of Americans now reject the long-held interventionist military policy of the Party, they are constrained to change by the knowledge that the only group of Americans not to have changed are those on the extreme right—precisely those who form the base of the Republican Party (along with most of the big-money special interest groups that fund Republican candidates). The establishment of the Republican Party understands that to have any chance to win the presidency, the Party must change its foreign policy position. But they are faced with the conundrum that any effort to make this change will split the Party, leading to even more election losses.
In steps Sen. Rand Paul. No potential Republican candidate for president has more credibility and gravitas as a right-wing conservative Republican, than does Rand Paul. Initially opposed by the establishment of the Republican Party, he would not be a senator today without the full-bodied support of the Tea Party faction and virtually every other leader on the Republican far-right. No one seriously questions Paul’s deep commitment to the beliefs of those on the right and because of this he has the requisite credibility to talk change with the Republican base. The “establishment” of the Republican Party, and certainly those outside the Party, has little hope of causing change on the Republican right. However, if someone of Rand Paul’s stature and history with the Republican right is willing to talk about change, then, at the very least, there are those who will listen, because he is one of them.
If Rand Paul can change the thinking of those on the right or even just mute their knee-jerk opposition to a change in the approach to foreign policy, it will benefit the Republican Party in general and specifically Rand Paul. Instead of being considered just a fringe candidate, Paul could garner the support of all segments of the Republican Party.
The only reason why Rand Paul has this opportunity is because he has always been identified with the status quo that he now seeks to change.
That’s a Lesson to be Learned
The reality is that real change in business and politics has almost always been brought about by those on the inside, rather than those who call for change from the outside. There can be pressure for change coming from the outside, but real change comes best and easiest from the inside. The reason for this is that those who are most connected to the status quo have the credibility to call for and implement a change to the status quo. It does not mean there will not be opposition to change. After all, Rick Perry, Sara Palin and John McCain have all criticized Rand Paul (notice also that no one at the center of the Republican Party has attacked his position), but they have a problem. It is easy to attack President Obama or even the Republican center, but Rand Paul is one of their own; his credibility becomes a shield to ward off these criticisms.
The Bottom Line
When a change is called for and is proposed by an insider, the resistance of those who support the status quo soon becomes irrelevant and ineffective. American history is replete with examples of how change is best effected when those on the inside and most identified with the status quo seek to change it. Probably the best example of this change from within is Richard Nixon’s recognition of Communist China. Nixon built his reputation and entire career on the basis of being an indomitable anti-Communist. No one could ever accuse Nixon of being “soft on Communism.” And yet, it was Nixon – the staunch anti-Communist insider – who was able to see the broader perspective and need for change who opened the door to China. We may look back now, 40 years later, and see the recognition of China as simple realism, but the reality is that only the credibility of Nixon’s anti-Communism gave him the power to implement what appeared at the time to be such a radical change in American policy.
Franklin Roosevelt, Lyndon Johnson and Ronald Reagan could also be cited as “agents of change” because they used their credibility with the status quo to change it. Roosevelt came from a wealthy upper-class family who changed the perceived role of government from one of protectors of business and wealth to the protector of the weak and poor. Lyndon Johnson was a died-in-the-wool Southerner who supported segregation and yet used the credibility of this background to push through civil rights legislation that changed America for the good forever. Ronald “we begin bombing Russia in 5 minutes” Reagan, the icon of Republican conservatism, used his credibility as a hard-nosed militarist to strike disarmament deals with Russia that only he could accomplish.
Using That Lesson in Your Business and Personal Life
Personal experience taught me the lessons of change from within. From the time I entered the life insurance industry in 1965 until I became president of ITT Life in 1980, I had been a true believer in the products and status quo of the insurance industry. However, when scanning the landscape of the insurance industry seeking a path to growth for what had been an also-run company, it became obvious that what I had always believed had been good, had become outdated. The truth was that the industry had grown lazy resting on its past success and had been insensitive to changing consumer needs.
There were those outside the industry calling for change, but they had little credibility within the industry and could be brushed off. It was obvious to me that ITT Life was not going to grow by doing what other companies were doing. My response was to publicly acknowledge that the products I had believed in and sold for almost 20 years and become obsolete and needed to be changed.
To say the least, the “establishment” of the insurance industry was not happy with me. Defensive attacks against me and my position came from all corners of the industry. But because my calls for change came from within the industry by one who had the credibility of being part of the status quo, it was impossible for the call for change to be ignored. And the industry did reluctantly change, not because of me, but in good part because of the debate that I – an insider – triggered. Of course, I benefited as well. The upheaval in the industry stimulated growth at ITT Life and ultimately gave me opportunity to start LifeUSA based on the changes that had been called for; the rest is history.
And the Moral of the Story …
The point to be learned here is that to be an effective leader and change agent, one must be willing to question and challenge even their most fundamental beliefs and experiences. It is difficult – if not hypocritical – to ask others to change their beliefs, if we are not willing to change our own beliefs.
It is when one has been clearly identified with the status quo that they have the power to change the status quo. Change may be uncomfortable and unwanted by many, but when it is proposed by those who have the credibility of an emotional connection with what needs to be changed, it makes it easier for others to accept and move forward. It may be the only way to effect real change.