Leading change: From ridiculous to self-evident

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I just stumbled across this profile that I wrote back in 2004 about someone who exemplifies leadership, in my mind. I wrote it for the Society for Leadership of Change, which I had basically forgotten all about, too (and it looks like it's gone dormant, from the Web site). Anyway, I think it bears repeating, so here goes:

Arthur Schopenhauer once said, “All truth passes through three stages. First, it is ridiculed. Second, it is violently opposed. Third, it is accepted as being self-evident.” According to Quincy Abbot, the same can be said for change.

Abbot went through these steps many times throughout his career leading change in the insurance industry, most recently as senior vice president with CIGNA in Connecticut, where he played a significant role in formulating and lobbying for tax legislation impacting the insurance industry.

But it’s in his volunteer work with The ARC (formerly known as the Association for Citizens with Mental Retardation) where the rewards of successfully leading change have proved to be most worth going through the process. That’s because, in making change happen in the way families, communities, legislative bodies, and local support systems work with people with intellectual disabilities, he could see the change-recipients blossom—including his daughter Becky, who has had intellectual disabilities since birth.

Self Determination

Back when Abbot first got involved with The ARC close to 40 years ago, the common wisdom was that people with intellectual disabilities could best be cared for in large institutions. Then came the idea of integrating these folks into local communities by placing them in 10-to-25-person group homes—a move thought to be much too risky, despite the abuses and neglect found in the institutional system. Then one of the biggest opponents of closing a notorious Connecticut institution ended up having to move his son into the community. “A week later, he said, ‘Why didn’t they tell me it would be like this? This is so much better,’” says Abbot. “If you can get people to experience the benefits of the changed situation, they will turn around and embrace it.”

Once it became evident that smaller would be even better, Abbot and his ARC crew took it further—now it’s codified into the Connecticut zoning law that every zone in the state has to accept a group home for six or fewer people with intellectual disabilities.

A great achievement—which he is now working hard to overturn. “One thing change leaders must be able to do is to let go of what they worked so hard to achieve when something better comes along,” he says. In his case, this meant letting go of his group-home achievements to put his energies toward self determination, “which lets people decide who they who they want to live with, not just be stuffed into a slot that happens to become available,” says Abbot.

Case managers, whose job it had been up until now to make that determination for their clients, raised some of the biggest objections, he says. While many are still in the anger stage, a small pilot program Abbot helped start “got a few of these people to recognize the value, and now they have become some of the most enthusiastic proponents.”

“You have to accept that a certain percentage of the old guard will fight to retain the status quo—human tendency is to fear the risks you don’t know and ignore the risks you do know--but you build on the new people coming in. Once they’re in the majority, the change will become the accepted practice”. In the meantime, he is encouraging future change leaders to keep the faith, and “talking, talking, talking until we move people from, ‘What are you, crazy?’ to ‘Hmm, maybe I could think about that’ to ‘Hey, have you thought about this?’”

Among his many extracurricular activities, Quincy Abbot has served as president or chairman with: The ARC, The Connecticut ARC, the Corporation for Independent Living, the Corporation for Supported Employment, the Institute for Human Resource Development, and Communitas. He's also my dad, and one of the smartest people I know.

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