Immunity to Change Washington Rules

In their most recent book, Immunity to Change (2009), Robert Kegan and Lisa Laskow Lahey demonstrate that each of us has a psychological and behavioral “immune system” that resists specific change—even and especially change we feel committed to—much the same way our physiological immune systems resist specific change in our bodies. Briefly, we behave in ways that obstruct our conscious commitments to change because we have hidden competing commitments that are deeply important to our sense of safety. If we’re willing to do some work, we can uncover some big assumptions we hold (also hidden) that underlie the hidden commitments that lead to the bewildering behaviors that thwart our attempts change.


In “Slow Learner,” the introduction to his most recent book, Washington Rules (2010), Andrew Bacevich shares with us his own two-decade-plus assumption-testing journey.  No small act, and while not overtly engaged in Kegan and Lahey’s process, Professor Bacevich’s courageous disclosures evince a level of deepening self-awareness and complexity that speak to his own, each of our, and our country’s immunity to, and prospects for, change.

Bacevich, a West Point and Princeton educated, retired U.S. Army Colonel, Vietnam veteran, Boston University professor, author, and father of four—including First Lieutenant Andrew John Bacevich, killed in action in Iraq, May 13, 2007, begins: “Worldly ambition inhibits true learning. Ask me, I know. A young man in a hurry is nearly uneducable….Only as ambition wanes does education become a possibility” (1).

He continues:
By temperament and upbringing, I had always taken comfort in orthodoxy. In a life spent subject to authority, deference had become a deeply ingrained habit. I found assurance in conventional wisdom. Now I started, however hesitantly, to suspect that orthodoxy might be a sham. I began to appreciate that authentic truth is never simple…. The powerful, I came to see, reveal truth only to the extent that it suits them….

I came to these obvious points embarrassingly late in life….And so, at age forty-one, I set out, in halting and haphazard fashion, to acquire a genuine education.

Twenty years later I’ve made only modest progress. (3-4)

My reading is that the author’s “genuine education” calls for a relentless and inevitably discomfiting examination of current worldview (i.e. assumptions) and consequent behaviors; holding them up alongside observable events in the manifest world; discerning among worldviews that are factual, ideological, and assumptive; and doing the ongoing work required to bring and keep one’s way of seeing and being in the world into alignment with “authentic truth”—observable events in any given moment and set of circumstances. No easy task, but an invaluable one.

Bacevich’s writing, in this volume and in his earlier work, embodies an evenhanded, fierce wisdom, a continually deepening self-awareness, and an increasingly comprehensive perspective that exposes and deconstructs the foreign, military and economic policy posturings of both political parties in the United States since the end of World War II.

As he continues to challenge assumptions—his own, his government’s, and ours, his personal story is an exemplar for change, and his historical-political voice is essential in the national and global conversations on sustainability.  

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