Those who exercise leadership understand loss. More specifically, they know how to manage loss. As scholars Marty Linsky, Alexander Grashow, and Ron Heifetz teach: people do not resist change, they resist loss.
They write, “You know the adage ‘People resist change.’ It is not really true. People are not stupid. People love change when they know it is a good thing. No one gives back a winning lottery ticket. What people resist is not change per se, but loss. When change involves real or potential loss, people hold on to what they have and resist the change.”
It is the job of effective leaders to help their constituents absorb loss. Only then can adaptive change happen.
We find ourselves in a time of immense loss for the world. On the Jewish calendar it is also a season of mourning that which has been lost. Indeed, loss is fundamental to our Jewish story; there is no light without darkness, no wedding without a broken glass, no temple without a destruction.
While we know this to be true intellectually, we fight against our losses at every turn. We cling to the familiar to escape the pain of loss.
A story from the Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Gittin 56, illustrates our reluctance to change, our fear of loss. We are told of a wealthy woman of Jerusalem, Marta Bat Baitos, who instructs her servant to go out to the market during the siege on Jerusalem, where there is food scarcity and immense hunger, to bring her some fine white flour. However, the servant was too late and all of the fine flour had already been sold. He reports back to Marta that there is no longer any fine flour, but there is ordinary flour. She instructs him to bring her the ordinary flour. In true Talmudic fashion, by the time he reaches the market, alas there is no longer any ordinary flour. He returns to Marta and reports again that there is no ordinary flour, but there is coarse flour. You can imagine what happens next. There is no longer any coarse flour either. And the story continues until there is not even barley flour, the coarsest flour available. Marta decides to go to the market herself and then a series of events ultimately leads to her death.
Though a sad and tragic tale, there are important leadership lessons found in this text. The Talmud teaches how difficult it is to accept the reality of the moment when it is not what we wish it to be. The most prudent thing for Marta to have done was to say, “Go and bring whatever food you can find!” Marta is used to eating only the finest flour and it is only when she has no other choice that she is able to adapt to the reality of accepting ordinary flour, then coarse flour, and finally barley flour.
Marta can teach us how to productively respond to loss. More than that, her story is instructive in teaching us how to manage fear and be satisfied by the current reality, even if it is not what we once had in our grasp. If Marta had been able to accept what the market could offer, she would have recognized the goodness in having acceptable food. All she could experience was loss. Stuck in a mindset of scarcity, Marta could not see the opportunity to be satisfied with a new reality…she could only see what was missing. How often do we do the same?
Turning the Linsky/Grashow/Heifeitz phrase on its head through the lens of this Talmud passage I would say, “People do not love change even when they know it is a good thing!”
This captures the spirit of our current moment as we attempt to return to lives that are more public, outward-facing, and communal.
For many, the return to society causes immense anxiety, and yes, a measure of loss. In the last year and a half we accepted a new normal. We somehow discovered new routines, found joy in the quiet, found comfort in the slower pace of life.
As we move forward, some of us will be mourning the loss of this slower pace. We are navigating a balance between “old normal and new normal.” There is much joy in returning to community, and still we are managing immense losses. Like Marta, we are having a hard time seeing all the good in the return to what was 18 months ago, just as we had a hard time absorbing how the pandemic upended our lives, our work, and our world.
We need a roadmap to manage our joy as well as our loss. Once again, we turn to Jewish wisdom.
The Jewish calendar marks a three-week mourning period beginning on the 17th of Tammuz and culminating with the 9th of Av, (Tisha B’Av,) the day which most intensely marks loss on the Jewish calendar. There is motion here, a move to accept the reality of our loss and to feel it deeply.
Then, just one week after the intensity of sadness, we suddenly have an entirely different and yet related day, the 15th of Av (Tu B’Av). The Mishna in Ta’anit describes this as time of casting off our mourning and of activating joy. We go out and seek new relationships, find hope, and connection.
A brilliant message is contained within our calendar; destruction and loss will always be part of life and the invitation to go out into the fields and discover joy, to find a new story, is also ever present.
Still, not everyone is ready to emerge from their mourning to dance in the fields. Fear not! The Jewish calendar affords us further opportunities to move toward the joy. Tu B’Av is quickly followed by the month of Elul, a time dedicated to repairing and restoring our relationships. It is followed by Rosh Hashanah and only then Yom Kippur – the antithesis of Tisha B’Av – a renewal that allows us to emerge from mourning completely.
The journey from loss to joy to repair allows us to consciously engage with the difficulty of change rather than ignore or avoid it. We are rediscovering normal, its joys and its losses. We are letting go of pandemic norms, our own and the world’s. We must give ourselves time and space to mourn, to rejoice, to retreat, and to surge forth – as many times as it may require – until we can fully trust our reality again, until we can calibrate the balance in our own lives.
Judaism teaches us that within loss there is joy, and within joy there is loss. So, my friends, be kind to yourselves as we accept and mourn all of these losses, and take our first tentative steps towards joy, individually and communally.
 The Practice of Adaptive Leadership: Tools and Tactics for Changing Your Organization and the World, Chapter 2.