Forget Moving Cheese…Move Some Ladders!

This week, I want to share an blog post written by Alex Berger. His post is a classified website that serves an intelligence agency. But he has willingly allowed me to re-share the post on this site. It’s a great story, with important messages. This is written in his words. Thanks Alex for sharing!

“Several years ago I was selected to serve as an exchange officer with the Israeli Defense Forces where I attended their version of the National War College just outside of Tel Aviv. There were six international students attending, all of whom arrived two months before the start of classes to attend an orientation program. As part of the program we were led on guided tours of many of Israel’s historical and religious sites; one of the most impressionable was the Church of the Holy Sepulcher located in the old city of Jerusalem. This church houses the two holiest sites in all of Christendom: the site where Jesus was crucified, and the holy tomb. No matter what your faith or religious beliefs, visiting the Church of the Holy Sepulcher is an amazing experience.

Move the Ladder
Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

“As our group stood in the courtyard outside of the church, our tour guide explained the history of the site, including the fact that the Church of the Holy Sepulcher is managed by six different denominations (Greek Orthodox, Armenian Apostolic, Roman Catholic, Coptic Orthodox, Ethiopian Orthodox, and Syriac Orthodox). He explained that the groups disagreed so strongly on how the church should be managed that in 1853, the Ottoman Sultan, who ruled Jerusalem at the time, feared for the safety of the site. In response he issued a decree known as the “Status Quo decree” that made permanent all existing agreements and regulations regarding the roles of the different denominations in managing the church complex. Under the Status Quo decree each denomination had sole decision authority over parts of the church under their custodianship, but areas designated as common territory (such as courtyards, entrances, and window ledges) would be ruled by consensus. Nothing in the common territory could be rearranged or modified without the consent of all six denominations. I was shocked to learn that the Status Quo agreement remains in effect ¬†today, over 160 years from when it was decreed.

“As a result of the Status Quo decree significant portions of the church are in disrepair today, and badly needed repairs are not made because the communities cannot agree on the final goal of a project. And yet the Status Quo agreement has not completely resolved conflict among the groups. For example, on a hot summer day in 2002 a Coptic monk moved his chair from a predesignated spot to a shady spot several feet away. This was interpreted as a hostile move by the Ethiopians and resulted in a fight that left eleven people hospitalized. The most visible symbol of the Status Quo decree is the “Immovable Ladder” that rests on a window ledge above the main entrance of the church. Because it sits in a common area, this wooden ladder that was presumably placed for maintenance work has remained in the exact same spot for over 160 years. It would take the consensus of dozens of leaders just to have it moved.

Move the Ladder
Ladder set on the edge of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

“So I wonder…what are the “immovable ladders” in our organization? What issues are we not resolving because we cannot achieve agreement, or because one organization has total domain over decision making? How many people try to make a difference in the organization, only to give up because others were not willing to compromise their position, giving up their control, or are unable to make a decision? How much better could we be if we weren’t such a consensus-driven organization?

Move the Ladder
Closeup of an aging ladder.

“I believe the solution to this challenge is not more strongly defined rules and functions, or reorganizing blocks on an organizational chart to find the perfect mix of oversight and authority. Of course we need officers to be put “in charge” so that we can decide where to place scarce resources and drive for mission success. But it has been proven over and over that those leaders who focus on one common purpose, share information and decisions widely, and foster trust across the entire organization create the most successful teams today.”

By the way, Alex invites all to come by his office and pledge these simple words: “I am moving ladders.” When they do so, he provides them a ladder lapel pin, which identifies them as a willing partner for change and a member of the “Move the Ladder Movement.” He summarizes the “Move the Ladder Movement” as follows:

I pledge to…

  • Challenge the Status Quo
  • Work across organizational boundaries for the good of the organization¬†and mission.
  • Lead what I am passionate about (Even if it was someone else’s idea)
  • Remove obstacles, support others, share success, own failure
  • When in doubt, ask…When not, DO!

Again, my thanks to Alex for this message. It resonates in any organization–public, private or non-profit.

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