Endemic and Systemic Change

Endemic and Systemic Change

The Arizona Cardinals are in the Super Bowl.  Think about that football fans. The team with the annoying little, bow tie wearing owner, that hasn’t been to a championship since the 1940’s – and two cities ago – is going to the big dance, defying all odds.  They are going for two reasons:  1) Larry Fitzgerald’s hands and 2) Kurt Warner’s leadership. Kurt Warner – as everyone knows – has a great arm, but his arm is not the main reason he is returning to the main event; it is his leadership.

My son has always been a big fan of Kurt Warner because they share the same birth date. As a father I can think of a lot of worse sports figures for my son to emulate.  So I have been dragged (willingly) into following Kurt’s career from the big victories in St. Louis, to his embarrassing stint in New York, to his venture to Arizona – a seemingly fitting metaphor for someone who is at the end of their career.  I did not expect him to be leading his team to the Super Bowl.  But I should have.

In Kurt’s post game interview he had this to say about coming to Arizona. “I wanted to help this organization change the perception people had of it.  I wanted to help change the community.”   That’s powerful stuff.  He didn’t just want to win a Superbowl, he wanted to change the perception of a franchise, and change a community.

The same day Kurt Werner was talking about change in Arizona, America was celebrating the work of Martin Luther King, and preparing to inaugurate the President who based his campaign on “Change.”   Change is in the air in America.

In many ways Vision For Your Life is about change.  It is about changing the paradigms that most of us have about our lives and living out of the fullness of who we were created to be.  Change however is never easy, and one of the irrefutable laws of psychology is this:  People resist change. We all resist change.  We like what we know and when we are presented with change we resist.  It is only when our pain level gets high enough that we are ready for change, and that promise of change (as President Obama has proven) is a powerful motivator.

Over the next several months I will be addressing the issue of change and The Leadership of Change.  There will be five articles looking at the essential aspects of change leadership.  They are:

I.    Endemic & Systemic change
II.    Cognitive Dissonance
III.    Cleaning up the mess
IV.    Building a foundation
V.    Growing on the foundation

In the first issue, I will be discussing the issues of Endemic and Systemic Change, what they are, and why it is important to understand the difference between them.

Let me offer a simple definition of each of those words.  “Endemic” refers to those elements of a society or an organization that are deeply rooted in the culture or the environment of that organization.  Those elements are like the cultural air we breathe. 
“Systemic” means that which is specific to a system.  It is not the very essence of a culture, but rather a specific part of the culture.  If endemic is the air we breath, then systemic is cigarette smoke in the air.  It is part of the air, but not essential to its’ existence.

When looking at change we must look at both the endemic and systemic factors.  To stay with the example of the air we breathe, if we want to change our air to “clean air” then we must deal with the cigarette smoke in the air (a systemic change) but dealing with cigarette smoke alone won’t create clean air.  We also must address societies desire for clean air (endemic change), and begin to act as a society toward that goal.

Systemic changes can be made by fiat (a direct order), but endemic changes are achieved by changing the culture.  In other words, a change to a specific element of the culture can change one of the systemic realities immediately, but endemic changes occur by changing the very threads woven into a culture and therefore change the culture as a whole over a long period of time.

My sister gave me Season One of the old Perry Mason TV series for Christmas.  As I watched the first couple of episodes I was struck by the fact that everyone on the screen smoked.  It was the “cool” thing to do in the culture of 1963.  To change that culture specific laws were enacted to make it more difficult to smoke (systemic change).  First there were the warning labels on cigarette packages, then the bans on smoking in public places, airplanes, offices and restaurants. Those systemic acts, to change the system, were signed into law and took effect immediately.  But, it has taken more than forty years – a generation – for the cultural climate to change and move to a place where smoking is generally not considered “cool.”  The endemic change required the systemic changes that made it more difficult to smoke along with the endemic work that included a media campaign to convince the culture that smoking was, among other things very hazardous to your health.  It’s not “cool” to kill yourself.

Or think about the endemic and systemic realities of racism in our country.  President Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act into law in 1965. Immediately the systemic reality changed and (at least in theory) all citizens had the opportunity to vote.  But the endemic attitudes of racism didn’t change when the law was signed.  It has taken forty-four years since the passage of that law for racial attitudes in America to change.  Who could have imagined in 1963 that America would elect a Black President?  Systemic change can happen immediately, but endemic change takes a long time. 

As we look at the process of change and how it applies to our personal lives and our organizations, we need to examine both the systemic and endemic realities.

When I was in the full time ministry I had to deal with the endemic realities of both those inside the world of full time ministry and those outside that world.  In both cases there was a common, cultural attitude that people in full time youth work were not as – shall we say, “professional” as those with “real jobs.”  That perception made it more difficult to recruit quality people to the work and affected our ability to raise the necessary funding.  I had to ask myself, “what systemic things can I change that will facilitate the endemic change over a long period of time?”

The same concept can be applied to our personal lives.  What are the endemic realities of your life that need to change, and what systemic changes can I make immediately that will affect the endemic reality over time?  Think about your attitudes toward work, money, relationships, parenting etc. – and ask yourself which of those attitudes are part of your endemic reality – part of your personal culture – that need to change.  For example, in the area of parenting, many of us were raised in a culture that believed children should be seen and not heard.   How has that cultural view affected your own parenting and does it need to be changed?  Or perhaps you were raised in a “children are the center of the universe” environment and you are asking yourself if that endemic reality needs to change.  Now, what systemic changes can you enact that will impact that systemic reality immediately and begin the process of changing the endemic reality?

When change is necessary you must address both the Endemic and Systemic realities in order for real change to occur.  Next month we’ll look at Cognitive Dissonance and how it can be a powerful agent in the process of change.

About the author / bobperkins

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