I wish you all had attended the Institute for Leadership Training in our nation’s capital in late July. The institute is a gathering of current and emerging leaders from ACA divisions and state branches. We learned. We laughed. We charged up Capitol Hill to advocate for veterans, seasoned citizens, school-aged youth, counselors and the diverse clients we serve. We were inspired to lead and to promote positive changes in the increasingly complex world that our clients, colleagues and citizens are navigating.

What made this event special for me was the keynote address, “Countdown to Teamwork,” presented by Col. Mike Mullane, a retired astronaut who flew several space shuttle missions and has used his experiences in the Air Force and NASA to bring a powerful message about how to function as a high-performing individual and a higher-performing team.Col. Mullane came from very humble beginnings and was driven to space exploration in spite of many limitations, including persistent nausea and subpar vision that resigned him to the second seat in fighter aircraft. None of this dissuaded him from his ultimate goal of becoming an astronaut.

Col. Mullane showed us pictures from his high school yearbook. He was not an athlete, he was not a scholar, and he was not popular — in fact, only one other student signed his yearbook. By his own report, he was the wiry little geek shooting off model rockets in the desert. Still, his presence in our meeting room was larger than life, his effervescent spirit vibrant and enthusiastic. And his effect on the 140-plus participants was palpable. He received a standing ovation not only at the end of his presentation (at which time he left the institute), but also the next day and the day after that — even though he was no longer in the building!

To be sure, it helped immensely that Col. Mullane had the spiffiest multimedia presentation I have ever witnessed — full of humorous, poignant and, yes, tragic video footage and pictures from the NASA archives. But it was his developmental story that fascinated me, how he focused like a laser on his goal and persevered through numerous hardships and challenges to transition and change into an American hero.

As I sat enthralled by this presentation, the indefatigable David Bowie started playing in my head, reminding me that we all experience challenges and hardships as we grow and develop; that we all experience normative and nonnormative transitions and ch-ch-ch-changes. But many people do not have supportive adult and peer influences, or they are held to disadvantages because of various inequitable societal “isms.”

Col. Mullane highlighted two main roadblocks to success. Too often, we tolerate the “normalization of deviance.” For example, in the case of the Challenger disaster, the O-rings had failed to perform within tolerable limits on several previous flights, and numerous warnings were issued that these failures could have disastrous consequences. But nothing bad happened on those previous flights, so the deviation became the norm. “If we got away with it once, we can get away with it again” … until a tragic disaster occurred.

We sometimes normalize deviance in our daily lives. We might turn a blind eye to others who are experiencing unfair treatment and are in need of an advocate. As counselors, we see that our clients and students often normalize deviance by habituating to unhealthy thoughts and behaviors. My colleague, Lynn Linde, once overheard a student express this observation quite succinctly: “I am comfortable in my misery.” The unusual is experienced over and over and soon becomes the “new normal.”

The second roadblock Col. Mullane discussed was the failure of individuals to take personal responsibility. He told us that his plane crashed the first time he went up in a fighter. He was brand new, and the pilot he was with had a thousand hours of experience. So when the pilot said, “Let’s get that last target,” even though it would take them past their safe return zone, Mullane deferred to the experienced commander. Instead of saying, “But we’re running low on fuel!” he responded, “Sure.” He and the pilot ran out of fuel just short of the runway and crashed.

The lesson Col. Mullane was sharing was clear, and we have seen the related quote from Edmund Burke a hundred times: “All that is necessary for evil to prevail is for good [people] to do nothing.” Opportunities for us to take personal responsibility, to “walk the walk,” occur every day. So as we infuse empathy, compassion and the desire to be a team player into our work, families and relationships, please continue to ask two critically important questions:

  • Did we take personal responsibility for our actions?
  • Did we point out that deviations from excellence are occurring and that the inevitable result of these deviations is a growing tolerance of actions that do not represent excellence?

After all, ch-ch-ch-change is inevitable … but growth is optional!

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