Why Not Mess Up a Good Thing?

We rarely get credit for not messing up a good thing. A number of years ago, a politician put it this way, “The most thankless decision I make is the one that prevents something bad from happening, because I can never prove that I prevented something even worse!”

Because there’s no big show of change, there’s no shiny, new object when you make the decision to preserve something, most people rarely ask themselves “What in my life is worth keeping?”

When it comes to behavioral change, successful people, by definition, are doing a lot of things correctly, so they have a lot to preserve. Yet, they also have a baseline urge that equates steady advancement with constant improvement. They’re geared to fight the status quo, not maintain it. When they face the choice of being good or getting even better, they instinctively opt for the latter—and risk losing some desirable qualities.

In its subtle way, preserving can be transformational.

One of my best friends and all-time heroes is Frances Hesselbein. Frances, whom Fortune magazine called the “best non-profit manager in America,” became CEO of the Girl Scouts of America in 1976. Her mandate was to transform a hidebound organization with declining membership, a reliance on 120 volunteers for every paid staff member, and an antiquated image that no longer applied to young girls of the times. The urge to scrap everything and rebuild from the ground up would have been understandable.

She called it “Tradition with a Future.”

Frances, who years before becoming CEO had volunteered with Troop 17 of the Girl Scouts in her hometown in Pennsylvania, knew that the organization had a lot worth preserving. For instance, its door-to-door cookie sales and its identity as a moral guide for young women. Frances showed her staff and volunteers that it was more important than ever to reach out to girls, given the emerging threats of drugs and teen pregnancy. Frances’s radical combination of preserving and creating inspired the organization with new purpose. The result? In her years as CEO, membership quadrupled and diversity tripled.

Preserving may sound passive and mundane, but it is a real choice. It requires soul-searching to figure out what serves us well, and discipline to refrain from abandoning it for something else!

Triggers is a #1 New York Times and Wall Street Journal best-seller! Order it at Amazon. See The Marshall Goldsmith Thinkers50 Video Blog for more of this video series.