Interdependent Individual and Systems Change

At first people refuse to believe that a strange new thing can be done, then they begin to hope it can’t be done.  They hope it can’t be done because it means seeing the garden in a whole new way.  Then they see it can be done.  This it is done and all the world wonders why it was not done centuries before.   

Frances Hodgson Burnett, The Secret Garden

Decades ago I smoked.  I smoked in university classrooms, on airplanes the minute the no smoking sign went off, in restaurants – before, during, and after courses – in cars driving through long, cold, enclosed Minnesota winters.  I don’t remember noticing how it affected those around me or that others found it rude of me to light up.  Nor do I remember asking permission.

In the seventies, changes began to occur – changes that offer a concrete example of simultaneous, interdependent change in my mind and in the community.  Minnesota was the first state to enact a law requiring restaurants to provide a non-smoking section.  With that, a new question was regularly asked of m, on that forced me to notice and choose:  “Smoking or non-smoking?”  Only a few years later, Northwest Airlines used the non-smoking policy as an advertising advantage.  On their ticket jackets and in their airline magazine a map of North American was drown with the continental United States highlighted.  Written across it was the phrase, “Our Non-Smoking Section.”  Though many smokers were outrages, Northwest’s decision to take this step in the face of potential hostility was crucial both toward affecting the change and in leading us to realize that the majority point of view was changing.

By that time, I had changed my mind, too.  I – who was certain I could not quit smoking, certain that I would take my last puff on my deathbed – had quit smoking!  How did that happen?  The changing laws and policies had an effect.  But things were changing at other levels as well.  One by one, many of my friends quit smoking.  More messages about developing a healthy lifestyle began to appear.  They had greater impact on me than the ones about how I was going to die from smoking.  A developing collective awareness supported me in making change.  Of course, I still had to quit.

Now I can go for months without being in the presence of cigarette, cigar, or pipe smoke.  None of the businesses for whome I consult allow smoking on their premises.  On below-zero winter days, people either stand in the cold or hike to their cars – often parked blocks away – for smoke breaks.  Most recently, even all restaurants and bars in Minnesota are non-smoking.

This dramatic change, occurring over a brief period of time, offers us a template showing the interactive nature of individual and systems change.  Some people still smoke, of course, and US tobacco companies are expanding their markets globally.  Nonetheless, if change can happen in one place, in one time, it demonstrates potential for change in other places and times.  Seeing the garden anew, doing the “strange new things” we once refused to believe could be done is a developmental and iterative process.


from Chapter 5: Seeing the Garden in a Whole New Way, Leadership in a Challenging World: A Sacred Journey by Barbara Shipka, pp. 52-53.


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