What Charlie Sheen and Mel Gibson Can Teach Us about Change

By Jim Whitt

A few months ago, Charlie Sheen seemed to be on top of the world. Then his world turned upside down. What’s really sad is that Charlie thought he was, to use his terminology, winning. And why shouldn’t he? He was raking in millions of dollars as the star of the highest rated sitcom on television. By many standards Charlie Sheen was a success. He probably really believed he possessed Adonis DNA and Tiger Blood. He saw absolutely no need to change. Now he has no show.

Mel Gibson, another celebrity whose problems are well documented, knows what it’s like to be on top of the world one day and on the bottom the next. In a recent interview with Allison Hope Weiner he had some interesting observations about his journey from the top to the bottom and points in between: “You realize change has happened. You face it, you cope with it and you move on. And it’s not easy. Change is always preceded by a little pain. Some people can change and they don’t have to go through so many painful things. But I think that I’m of a personality that I’m a little stubborn, so it’s tough for me.”

I must share that same personality trait because change is tough for me, too. In fact, I have never met anyone for whom change is easy. Mel says change is always preceded by a little pain. I’ll go a step further and say that change is not only preceded by but accompanied by pain. And the greater the change required the longer it takes to achieve. As Mel noted in his interview, “There are solutions and it doesn’t all happen like that (Snaps his fingers). Bad things happen like that. But good things all take time — growth, healing, that all takes time.”

It doesn’t take nearly as much time to destroy as it takes to build. That’s true for both personal and organizational development. Both require changes in behavior. New patterns of behavior have to be learned and that takes time. Organizational development is particularly difficult and time consuming because it requires changes in behavior of everyone in the organization.

About a year before the great recession of 2008 hit, an organization I was consulting with wrestled with the question of, “To change or not to change.” On one hand the leadership agreed the structure and culture had to change for the company to succeed in the future. On the other hand they felt they were doing pretty well with things as they were.  The truth was they were doing pretty well but they would have to change to succeed in the future. It’s worth noting that Charlie Sheen and Mel Gibson were doing pretty well, too. Both were at the pinnacles of their careers when they imploded.

At the same time I was consulting with the company that was struggling with the “change or not to change” question another company I was familiar with was preparing for its 25th anniversary. It had been an extremely successful company and things appeared to be going so well they were considering taking all of the employees to someplace like Disneyworld to celebrate their anniversary. When the economy headed south the company imploded. They are no longer in business. Yes, as Mel observed, bad things can happen fast. Fortunately, the company I was consulting with chose to change. They are still in business. They are still changing. And they are doing even better than before.

The lesson for us is to understand that we are never totally objective about where we are as individuals or organizations. Change never stops and we can’t stop change. It’s a two-way street. Either we make it happen or it happens to us. Yes, change is painful. But the pain of not changing is a whole lot worse.

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