Change Agent: Redefining the Buzzword

By Tommie Murray

I recently spent time talking with an undergrad. She was excited to tell me about her upcoming internship with a large corporation, as well as her latest off campus project. As we shared our newest adventures, I told her that I would soon be writing an article about change agents. She lit up! It’s a buzz word you know. As a business major, she informed me that ‘entrepreneur’ was so last decade. All the best and brightest are calling themselves ‘change makers’ or ‘creators’. (Did you know ‘innovator’ is simple and boring now, too? I bet you did.)

For her and many others, the term change agent refers to a person embedded within an organization who proactively seeks to change it from the inside. They see themselves as a catalyst for corporate or societal change. It’s a well-intended thought. It can be empowering even. “Make a Difference” and “Be the change you want to see in the world!”  Something in me rises to that challenge. I chose my career because of that desire to make a difference. Yet I found myself, as I think many others do, frustrated. Eager and motivated, we go into a company or profession thinking, I can’t wait to change it, to make it better, to … you fill in the blank. Why is it, then, that we find ourselves discouraged with the little impact we make? I believe it’s because we have the wrong definition of this idea of ‘change agents’. I’d like to propose a revised definition.  

Change agents are not people defined based on what they do. Change agents are people who know something, something powerful enough to actually change the world.  

In Jim Collins’ book Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap... and Others Don't, he states, “Those who build great companies understand that the ultimate throttle on growth for any great company is not markets, or technology, or competition, or products. It is one thing above all others: the ability to get and keep enough of the right people.”

According to him, the right people make a great difference. But who are the right people?

Malcolm Gladwell might lead us towards some answers. In The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference, he wrote, “The success of any kind of social epidemic is heavily dependent on the involvement of people with a particular and rare set of social gifts.” 

“The way that we see ourselves impacts our actions.”

Social gifts? Does he mean the bubbly, energetic, party planner? The man in any room you immediately deem the networker? The salesman who can get you to buy something you didn’t want? Those are the right people who make societal and corporate change?

Not quite. Sure being extraverted can help you in a social situation, but Gladwell used the word “social gifts”. I’d like to take his phrasing and build on it. Gifts are things we have that we give to others. So what are social gifts? Things we give socially. It’s more than just word play, it is intention. The ‘right people’ have ‘social gifts’. Change agents are the people who know what they have to give and know how to give it to the people around them. What gifts do change agents give? They give the real catalyst for change: identity.

Change agents know that their interactions with others influence  identity, whether done intentionally or not. We are constantly shaping our identities based on our experiences with others. All of us are doing it, but that doesn’t mean we all know we are. That’s the difference. That’s what makes someone a change agent - they know they are shaping identities with every interaction.  For this reason, they are mindful and intentional in their social and corporate exchanges. In fact, they are conscious of their great ability to influence identity when they stand in line at a check-out counter or reprimand their employee. This isn’t something new. It’s the nervous weight of mothers and fathers – the responsibility to influence a person’s identity. Change agents don’t change what we do, they change how we see ourselves- and they empower us to be change agents too.

Not convinced? Think about a person in history that changed society. Think of a person who was a great success in their field. Think of a person you want to be like? Got a name? Great! Now, ask yourself if that person influenced the way others viewed themselves? I am willing to bet the answer is yes. Their place in history was set because they changed the way a person or a group of people viewed themselves. The way that we see ourselves impacts our actions. Harriet Tubman, Fredrick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln, and host of others changed the identity of slaves in our nation in such a way, that they changed their actions as well. These heroic men and women were change agents. These abolitionists said to an enslaved people, “you are a person with value”. They said to them, “you can be free”. They spoke with intention. Their actions were purposeful.

Every great change in society, from the fight for women’s suffrage to the civil rights movement, came out of a change in identity. It was purposefully constructed to empower a people to act and think in a new way. Some of the world’s greatest tyrannical leaders were able to do change the world as well, by spreading an identity of worthlessness.

When others are around us, do they feel empowered or insecure? Do our actions encourage or belittle them? This is where our deeds must reflect our faith. I believe God created each person in His likeness. This truth should be evident in the way I speak to my coworker, who is also created in God’s image. If I believe God so loved the world that He gave His only son, then when I am standing in the grocery line my attitude should reflect that belief about the people around me. More so, my interactions with others should support their own internal belief that God values them.

My identity is founded in my faith. Who I am is a direct representation of whose I am. This knowledge is powerful. People need to know that they are loved, that they have great value, and that their uniqueness is a strength not a weakness. If you and I choose not to speak into the identities of those around us, others will. In fact, they already are. You’ve heard it. They say: you are not enough of the right things, you are too much of the wrong things, and you don’t quite measure up.   

In our busy lives, we can get caught up in trying get to a position of influence. We tell ourselves, “If I can just get to the top, then I can make real change.” Wrong! We already are in positions of influence. We all influence each other daily. So you want to change the world, or your firm, or your household? Do you want to make an impact in your business, university, or hospital? Start with what you know – you are able to shape identity by what you give to others! Voltaire tells us that “with great power comes great responsibility.” So as you go about your day, think about what your actions and words speak to others. It is how they see themselves that will change our world! Start with you – see yourself as a change agent and then, go speak purpose and value into the identities around you. 

-Tommie Murray is an elementary teacher at a public school in Central Pennsylvania. Currently, she is working towards her M.Ed in Educational Leadership at Regent University. A few highlights of her career include working in the PDS partnership with Penn State University as a mentor teacher, methods professor, and partner classroom. She enjoys working with pre-service teachers almost as much as her elementary students. When not doing school work, she can be found refereeing the nearest youth soccer game or volunteering at Joshua House Community Center.