In the military, the most tragic error leaders can make is to assume future conflicts will reflect previous conflicts they’ve experienced. That is, they allow themselves to believe what they’ve seen work yesterday will be sufficient to prepare those they lead for tomorrow. Tragically, this deeply flawed perspective, which clings to the perceived safety of the past instead of facing the uncertainty of the future, is likely what led French generals in the first half of the twentieth century to assume the next Great War would look much like the last.
Following the devastating losses of World War I in which more than 1.3 million Frenchmen lost their lives, the country’s leaders set out to develop a strategy that would deter future aggressors from ever inflicting the kind of damage the nation had sustained in the past. Their answer: build a fortified wall called the Maginot Line.
The Maginot Line was built between 1929 and 1940 as a mechanism to provide time for the French army to mobilize in time of war. With its fixed, fortified defense positions, France’s leaders believed this massive wall would provide their nation a clear operational advantage, thus deterring future attacks from their longtime enemy, Germany.
History reveals they were wrong on both counts.
At completion, the Maginot Line stretched from Switzerland to the dense Ardennes forest in the north, and from the Alps to the Mediterranean in the south. A state-of-the-art, ultramodern defensive system, the line consisted of a vast array of underground, interconnecting tunnel complexes that stretched for kilometers. Within these underground complexes, thousands of men slept, trained, watched, and waited for their call to war.
It was a call these brave soldiers never heard.
Ironically, the Maginot Line served the exact purpose for which it was built. It succeeded in dissuading the Germans from attacking across France’s eastern frontier. However, its greatest defect was that it wasn’t quite long enough. As a result, in May 1940, Hitler simply chose to go around it and defeated France in under six weeks. In the end, France’s failure was less a function of possessing inferior military capability than it was a reflection of its leaders’ inability to adequately prepare the nation and its people for an uncertain future. A leadership failure that ultimately rendered the Maginot Line obsolete long before the first brick had ever been laid.
Fear of Change
In my view, the sad history of the Maginot Line serves as a clear warning of what awaits those who fail to realistically address the ever-present need to push the boundaries of the status quo. It also provides us with a timeless example of just how much truth can be found in American statesman, scientist, philosopher, writer, and inventor Benjamin Franklin’s observation, “When you’re finished changing, you’re finished.”
Now, please don’t get me wrong. I’m certainly not suggesting leaning into change is easy. In fact, just mentioning change can instill a sense of profound weariness in even the most resilient and “change-friendly” individual. And for good reason, as the very prospect of change implies an invalidation of the past. What we know, what we’re comfortable with, or what we’ve come to accept as “just the way things are around here” is suddenly under attack. All of which leads us to become more defensive than receptive when the need for change comes knocking.
And trust me when I say it will come knocking.
So what can we do to help break this destructive cycle of avoiding change that all but guarantees we will each build our own version of the Maginot Line in our lives? We can engage in a powerful process of ongoing personal transformation I call, the Triple Loop Reboot.
The triple-loop reboot represents an intentional means of stretching our abilities by challenging old ways of thinking and being. Originally developed by futurist Alvin Toffler to describe how we can overcome the inertia of the status quo, this dynamic process of learning, unlearning and relearning equips us to abandon what’s not working so we can confidently push off into unfamiliar territory. Here’s why this process works so well.
Researchers in the field of behavioral psychology tell us learning is the primary means by which we continue to prepare ourselves to deal with change. Be it developing new skills, accumulating new knowledge, or reinforcing existing ideas and beliefs, more than half of what we do involves some form of learning. The other half, you may be surprised to discover, involves unlearning.
Unlearning can be a one-time deal or an ongoing practice. It can help us become open to new experiences, behaviors, and knowledge. As Marcia Conner writes in Fast Company, although we cannot physiologically unlearn anything-literally erase existing neural pathways-we can choose to create the equivalent of a mental attic and put a sign on the door that reads, “Things I know to be no longer so.” By engaging in a process of examining things in our lives that prevent us from being as effective as we are capable of being, unlearning is a repeatable process of personal renewal that allows us to shift our focus beyond the perceived comfort of the status quo and makes us more able to act on opportunities to stretch and grow.
But let me tell you straight up that unlearning is a lot harder than learning. In fact, it’s at least twice as hard and often takes more than twice as long. Why? Because unlearning demands we put deeply entrenched thoughts, beliefs, and patterns out of our minds. If you’ve ever tried to kick a habit or change a routine, you know how hard it is to let go of those things that are familiar, predictable, comfortable and convenient. But know this. Unlearning old ways of thinking and behaving that are no longer working is worth the effort. The trick, of course, is knowing which things are worth keeping and which are worth tossing.
Relearning is the process of intentionally targeting specific attitudes and actions we want to make a priority. While learning is the process by which we put everything in our mind and unlearning is a sort of cognitive cleansing that liberates us from unwanted beliefs, behaviors, and thought patterns that conspire to keep us captive to the status-quo, then relearning is what allows us to create new options in our brain. Options that clear the way for us to more readily accept responsibility for transforming good intentions into deliberate actions.
What is the fastest way we can kickstart this cycle of positive personal change known as the Triple-Loop Reboot? Interestingly, the answer isn’t found in making quantum leaps forward in new directions. Rather, it is found in making intentional daily choices to abandon out-of-date learning that reinforces the status quo; promoting a view of living that prioritizes adopting new ideas; and above all, committing to acting on opportunities, big and small to do something to help create the kind of future we yearn to see. With that said, here are four questions for you:
- What new attitudes and actions have you learned recently that are helping you stretch and grow, both personally and professionally?
- When is the last time you paused to examine what is no longer working and committed to do something positive to unlearn unproductive habits and rid yourself of unhealthy thought patterns?
- What skills, techniques or approaches have worked well for you in the past you may have inadvertently abandoned? Might it be worthwhile to relearn some of these proven pathways to success?
- Lastly, where have you built your own version of the Maginot Line in your home, workplace, worship space, or community? How’s it working for you?
Remember, human beings crave stability and permanence. When change threatens the stability of what we know, we often seek refuge in “what we have always done.” The paradox in this inclination is that change is the most enduring element of our lives. What we have “always done” is change.
Of course, exercising this kind of proactive, self-motivated leadership in today’s dynamic world is risky and difficult. But history confirms it is courageous risk-takers who do more to improve conditions for humanity than anyone else. It’s not the government, big business, organized religion, or the military who make the greatest positive difference in our surroundings. Rather, it’s the everyday citizen leaders in our midst who are unafraid to engage in a continual process of learning, unlearning, and relearning. Those who successfully guard themselves from building a modern day version of the Maginot line by coming to see change for what it really is: a necessary requirement for growing into the best possible version of ourselves.