In these times of Transformation (intentionally capitalized), it’s not only important to embrace the idea of change, but to also engage and connect with our past.
One of my favorite quotes comes from Marcel Proust*:
The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes
My maternal grandmother, Mary Evelyn Florence Cheape (aka “Mam-ma”) was born in 1920 and lived almost 92 years. She experienced a LOT in her lifetime, never ceasing to learn, grow and adapt to change. Throughout all of this, she was true to herself, with strong values and a reverence to her past and those who had shaped the world before her. She was curious and confident in personal and professional roles, and she didn't shy away from a challenge. Mam-ma was a leader in every sense of the word. Over time, she unintentionally assumed a matriarchal role in our family, always maintaining an optimistic outlook and developing unique relationships with each of us.
Her spirit continues to inspire me every day.
Mam-ma taught me at early age that some of the greatest innovations and creative expressions are built from existing materials. One example of this was in her wardrobe. She had a sense of style like no other, always pulling together terrific combinations of clothing, jewelry and shoes that were not sold as ensembles, but instead collected from a multitude of shopping ventures at home and in her travels. It was not uncommon for her to also alter individual pieces – if she didn’t like where the buttons were placed, she moved them to suit her preference, or added more simply for embellishment. She found new ways of using pieces, such as doubling up long necklaces or wearing them as a bracelet. She paired items that didn’t seem to go together that always resulted in inimitable and fantastic looks. She also had the luxury of multiple closets and an attic, rotating her wardrobe by the season, pulling out pieces from years or even decades earlier, combining them with newer items to create something uniquely and quintessentially hers in the process.
When she passed away in 2012, my sisters, cousins and I were able to choose some special pieces, each with specific memories and meaning for us. What remained later was a LOT of costume jewelry – rings, necklaces, earrings, watches, broaches in every color, shape and size. I knew it was highly unlikely that I’d wear many of these pieces, but I knew I couldn’t leave them behind. I didn’t know exactly why I packed it up for myself, but it was one of the many boxes that accompanied us on the move to Atlanta.
I moved this box of jewelry around a few times as we settled into our new home, never quite sure what I’d do, and a couple of years later, I was inspired. Mam-ma was exemplary in her ability to take things apart and put them back together; surely she wouldn’t mind if I did the same with these pieces? I decided to use the beads, in conjunction with new beads and other materials, to create bracelets for my mom, sisters and nieces, my mother-in-law and sister-in-law as Christmas presents. They’d each known what a special lady my Mam-ma was and will always be. I wanted to give them a unique and personalized way to carry her spirit forward.
As leaders, it’s important to remember that transformation isn’t necessarily about starting over. It is instead an opportunity to explore where you are relative to where you want to be, and only after doing that, to design a path and take action to get there. Ask yourself why things are done the way they are, and why they are done in the first place. If the answer is “because that is how it’s always been”, it’s probably a good idea to ask again. What is the spirit of the action, task or tradition? How has this served you and your team in the past, and how could it continue to bring value in the future?
Connecting to our foundation is an important element of engagement; we take pride in past success and seek to build upon it. As we transform ourselves, our team members, and our organizations we are making space, moving things around. History can teach us what works well and what to continue (see Celebration). We need to be open to possibilities, and willing to take things apart to really explore. The pieces may still work, but in order to meet today’s needs, it’s necessary to put things together in new ways. Simply because we don’t use something in the same way doesn’t mean it is no longer useful or valuable.
I’ve since thinned out my supply of beads sourced from Mam-ma’s jewelry, but there are plenty remaining to provide inspiration for future creations, and I now look at these items in new ways when I see them in vintage or consignment stores (and try not to buy more than I can use!). There are more transformations to come. I may not have her flair for fashion, but through this and other experiences, I’m continually reminded that it is possible to be sentimental and progressive at the same time.
How do you honor the past while continuing to evolve and grow? Please share your thoughts and experiences in the comments below.
* There are a few variations on this as it has been translated and interpreted by a number of scholars. The quotation above is a paraphrase of text in volume 5—The Prisoner—originally published in French, in 1923, and first translated into English by C. K. Moncrief.