If you build it, will they come?
By Maj. Matt Hart, Squadron Officer College
/ Published September 10, 2014
MAXWELL AFB, Ala. -- One of my favorite movies as a child was "Field of Dreams." It's a movie about a farmer from Iowa who was inspired to build a baseball diamond in his cornfield. While working in his field one day he heard a voice saying, "If you build it, they will come." He was so convinced that he should build the diamond that he risked bankruptcy and the loss of his entire farm. The town's people all thought he was crazy and his own family had their doubts. But, he stuck to his conviction and belief, built the baseball field, and in the end it turned out that there was a greater purpose behind his inspiration. He never lost hope that if he built it, they would come.
This film serves as a great analogy for leading change or innovation in our Air Force. However, this isn't Hollywood, this is reality. A new, big or innovative idea won't immediately inspire people to flock to your team or rally behind you (although sometimes it does). You may be the victim of some skeptical looks or even get told "you're crazy." But, if you believe in your cause, and maintain the right tact in your approach, you can inspire change and accomplish great things. Unfortunately, all too often we get this backward--we try to build it first in hopes they will come. We move out quickly on new ideas or changes, hope that everyone jumps on board, and then spend time trying to figure out why we're not gaining more traction or buy-in. But, it doesn't have to be this way. There are things you can do regardless of your position in the organization to inspire real change. It all comes down to your credibility, relationships and humility.
Credibility is defined in the Oxford Dictionary as, "the quality of being trusted or believed in." When you read that definition it's clear that credibility isn't automatically associated with rank or position. True credibility takes time to build. You've got to be patient and build trust with people. By moving slowly on any big change, a leader has time to assess the culture of the organization and the impact the change is having on culture. Forcing your own agenda or ideas on people will not produce lasting results, but will produce distrust and skepticism. You've got to build your expertise and prove that you're knowledgeable in the area you're trying to change. Credibility is one of the by-products of expertise and experience. Finally, to build credibility, display unquestionable character. It's easy to build trust amongst others when you're honest, transparent and genuinely motivated to do what is right, regardless of personal gain or loss.
While credibility can help you inspire change, without relationships credibility hardly matters. Any leader who has worked on a headquarters staff or cross-organization problems knows that relationships are critical to getting anything done. Often times when we have a personal agenda or goal we'd like to accomplish, we immediately throw relationships out the window and try to press forward regardless of any resistance we face. The irony is that this method tends to burn bridges and amplifies resistance. To nurture relationships you should find ways to build bridges inside and across organizations instead of putting up walls. You should communicate openly and honestly both up and down the organization. Holding information does not yield power, it actually strips you of power and trust. Finally, you should seek to elevate others rather than self. The authentic valuing of other people is essential to building relationships.
The ability to inspire change may be rooted in credibility and relationships, but an essential ingredient that can't be overlooked is humility. It may seem odd to add humility into a discussion on influencing or inspiring change, but when you understand why, it makes complete sense. You see, having the ability to influence others is a heavy responsibility; one that can be abused if not kept in check. A true leader must be humble enough to acknowledge they won't always be right and exercise restraint when things don't exactly go their way. Sometimes, regardless of how much you believe in an idea or change, others won't. Sometimes, even if you build it, they won't come. You've got to be OK with defeat or denial and bounce back so you're ready for the next challenge or opportunity. You need the humility to accept the things you cannot influence, admit your mistakes along the way and move positively on to the next challenge.
Going back to the movie "Field of Dreams," in the closing scene we see a line of cars all coming to see the farmer's baseball field, not because they thought he was crazy, but because they now believe what he believed. Unlike in Hollywood, we're not guaranteed a happy ending. Our structures and system sometimes create a lot of resistance to change and innovation. Don't let resistance cause you to lose hope. If you maintain trust and credibility, nurture positive relationships and stay humble through the process, you can inspire change and be confident that if you build it, they will come.