The Crossing

Leading change and innovation is a journey that often requires a leap into the unknown. Not just once, but many times. The hardest part is not testing the water. It’s crossing it fully, and with the scale of many having the will to join you.

Every year there is a massive movement of individuals across the great savannas of East Africa. Around two million wildebeest migrate north from the Serengeti to the Maasai Mara where they will thrive and spend their time for a season. They are joined by a collective of zebra, birds, and a diversity of other companions. No one in this company is confused about whether they must go nor how they will get there. Yet every year, the journey is different. The company changes, the climate changes, the landscape changes, and the certainty of success is always in question. One thing is certain however: nothing stops the movement.

On one occasion, I got the privilege to sit and watch one of the most crucial parts of this purposeful journey. The part where tensions rise and uncertainty abounds. The part where every wildebeest is looking for confidence, for leadership and for a proven path forward. The part where many will move onward toward their long awaited destination. The part where some – or many – will die. This part is called the crossing.

There are many crossings throughout the great migration of wildebeest. It usually happens where a wide, winding riverbed dramatically cuts across the savanna landscape like a curve in a snake’s belly. Sometimes there can be deep water, but often there is merely a knee-deep stream and mud. Yet for the awkwardly shaped wildebeest on their skinny legs and narrow hooves, the drop down the bank and climb up the other side can be quite perilous. On top of that, thousands upon thousands will cross at the same time. So you can be drowned, trampled, mortally stumble, or on top of that become lunch for a hungry crocodile.

As I watched this particular crossing, it was fascinating to me how long the group of wildebeest was willing to wait before committing to the initial thrust down into the riverbed. They had been there all morning staring down into it. One would inch toward the edge, look down, and then back away. Another would take their place. Another. And another. No one wanted to be the first to cross – yet thousands of them were waiting and committed to follow the second that descent began. More and more mothers, fathers, and children teamed up behind the leaders. The dense pack of bodies closed tighter around the edge of the ravine. Several nearly fell over the edge due to the pressure of the group. Change was imminent.

Looking down into the riverbed, I could see many of the perils they feared… Crocodiles as large as whales – some cleverly hidden, save for their snouts peeking above the water, and some starkly basking in the sun on the banks further downstream. Sharp rocks buried beneath the water and mud, like the tip of the iceberg that sank the Titanic, protruded menacingly. Beyond all of that, the opposite bank rose like a wall that might require professional rock climbing expertise. There was no certainty of success by a long shot. Yet the movement would indeed continue.

Finally, in one beautiful moment of valor, it happened.

One courageous young buck lifted its hooves and kicked off the ledge, off into the air with a jump that sent it shooting out across the ravine. It landed with a giant splash into the water and immediately drove forward with unyielding resolve.

The crossing had begun.

No more than a couple seconds later, realizing the way was set, there was a great surge of the many other wildebeest over the ledge and down into the riverbed. One after another dove down and found their way across the water to the other side. They followed the brave leader up their newfound trail and out onto the other side where the savanna was wide and green. More poured over the edge and through to the other side. Soon, thousands were braving the crossing like ants in a great formation.

I sat in amazement as the great migration of wildebeest continued once again. It was a marvelous sight to take in. But most of all, I was intrigued by how much “anticipation” and build-up it took to finally start the crossing itself. So many wildebeest had tested the edge and considered leading the way, but they inched back to safety time and again. I contemplated the secret to the bravery of the final leader – what made her or him different? They took the leap and won – and millions followed them in the days and weeks to come.

Leading Change

In health care, it often feels like a similar migration toward new horizons of change. There are new payment models, evolving consumer demands, new talent to engage, and different systems to implement. All seem too daunting and different to many at times – and yet ironically they feel exactly like our familiar past once we arrive.

Just like the various junctures along the great wildebeest migration, the fear and apprehension to lead change and cross from one way of doing things to another in health care is as palpable and visible as what I frequently saw in the Maasai Mara. No one wants to be first, unless they’re crazy or outspoken entrepreneurs. Even the entrepreneurs don’t often ‘leap’ until they’ve convinced enough others that it’s a good idea, at least enough to invest and go with them. True change in health care requires radical commitment to a new path and leaping into it, knowing that millions are watching and you very well may fail.

There’s always a reason to wait.

“Well, the new payment model hasn’t been tested enough.”

“Time will tell if the outcomes outmatch the risk.”

“Until the government actually shifts reimbursement, you’re only going to starve by changing ahead of the curve.”

“What if this means we don’t hit our goals this year?”

“What if the competition waits and watches us fail?”

“Our people are tired – we can’t give them another thing to do.”

The thing is, people are not that different from wildebeest. We believe in movements. We believe in bigger, better horizons. We value fearless leadership. We accomplish incredible feats together, and we tell the stories for generations. We remember our crossings.

You. Just. Have. To. Cross.



When I used to tell the story of the great migration and crossing of the wildebeest, I often left out the part about the ever-present pit of crocodiles at the bottom of the riverbed. Something about “and some of you may die” didn’t seem like the right pick-me-up speaking to 500 or so clinical leaders about change. But since then, I’ve come to appreciate the importance of the antagonist in this tale of valor and peril. Without the crocodiles, rocks, and rushing water, the change would be easy. Everyone would do it. There would be little creativity, little attention, and likely little change at all. The greatest challenge of the crossing is that you have to be able to see the bigger picture – the why of the journey – and move forward on behalf of the whole, not just yourself.

  • What is currently a ‘crossing’ in your career or life?
  • What are your “crocodiles?” What are the things that could get in the way or keep you from reaching the other side? What do you fear? What does your team fear, or have you asked them?
  • Do you often think of one change as a one-and-done initiative itself, or is it part of a longer journey? What is that journey, or how would you describe it to someone else?

As always, each crossing will look somewhat different. It may require different approaches and different solutions. But just like so many challenges with two sides, forced between both the dangers below and the will of the masses behind you, you must act.

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