Just as a snake sheds its skin, we must shed our past over and over again

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-Michael Whittington

EMWJust as a snake sheds its skin, we must shed our past over and over again.

This simple, but profound, phrase is attributed to Siddartha Guatama, who was born in India around 500 BCE and later became known as the Buddha, or the “Enlightened One.”

It’s a powerful metaphor for the importance of accepting change, that most constant presence in our lives. One only has to look at the history of American business to see this metaphor in action. In “24/7 Wall St.,” Douglas A. McIntyre noted that the most successful American corporations of the mid-twentieth century—U.S. Steel, General Motors, Goodyear, and Firestone, have been eclipsed by retail and technology giants that didn’t even exist five decades previously.

Many of today’s familiar corporations began as very different organizations. American Express was the FedEx of its day—building its initial success as an express mail service in mid-nineteenth century upstate New York. Later, investment in financial services and the nascent consumer credit card resulted in today’s familiar organization.

Today’s cutting-edge technology will appear quaint by the standards of future generations. Wells Fargo—formed by two American Express executives to take advantage of California’s lucrative and unregulated gold rush—still uses the stagecoach as part of its corporate brand. The notion of a transcontinental crossing by stagecoach seems torturous by modern standards of travel, but at the time it was speedy and efficient. What I admire about the continued use of the stagecoach logo is that honoring your heritage isn’t quaint. It’s vital.

Change isn’t always subtle or incremental.  I’m reminded of how thorough change can be on those rare occasions when I’m in a shopping mall and pass by Abercrombie & Fitch. Today, this retailer is famous for its youthful clothing lines promoted by Bruce Weber’s highly sexualized, black-and-white photography. However, the company began as an upscale sporting and outdoor goods store in New York City. I would never have known this, were it not for a beloved anthropology professor who spoke fondly of outfitting his entire one-year expedition to study the Amazonian Tapirapé of Brazil from the Madison Avenue store.

Interestingly, our cultural organizations are participating in somewhat less visible, but just as dramatic, change. Our business acumen, in concert with our devotion to mission, has sharpened. A quiet revolution has led to the transformation to a visitor-centered, customer-driven, ethos. Gone are the ivory tower days when customers (or visitors) were treated with indifference and possibly even arrogance. As the CEO of an art museum, my hope is that our ultimate transformation will not be too radical. I shudder at the thought of digital reproductions replacing the real thing. However, like the serpent, shedding our old skin (or dated ideas)—while still retaining the core of who we are—should come naturally. It’s the only way to fully embrace the future.

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