On the day when The Scouts in the UK have announced their exciting new strategy for the next five years, and launched their new brand identity, I have been reflecting on evolution and change versus tradition.
Anybody who knows me will recognise that I am passionate about change. I want to see a better world. I want to see people able to live happier, healthier, more principled and successful lives. Much of my work, whether as a coach / speaker or as a volunteer, has been to bring about purposeful change.
And yet, I also love tradition. I was born into Scouting and enjoy – among many other things – its customs, traditions and heritage. I am also a Freeman of the City of London and as an adult I have joined organisations with a rich and long history, including Freemasonry, a City Livery Company and the College of St George at Windsor Castle – where, each year, I witness the pomp and ceremony at the annual Garter Day. I am also a founder and trustee of a Scouting heritage charity, helping to conserve iconic Scouting artefacts for future generations.
How do I resolve these apparent contradictions? Indeed, is evolution and change incompatible with tradition? Must one always be threatened by the other? Or, can they co-exist?
As a volunteer in both Scouting and Freemasonry I have become involved in the development of these organisations. I have researched their histories and examined how they have evolved. I have found that the way they have evolved and changed over the years has been critical to their survival. Indeed other organisations have died precisely because they did not evolve.
The Founder of Scouting, Robert Baden-Powell, always said that Scouting was a Movement and he warned his Commissioners that if it ever became just an organisation it would die. In my fifty years in membership I have seen many changes in Scouting. Not all of them were comfortable at the time but today Scouting still follows Baden-Powell’s dream and ideals and is now growing faster than it has done at any time since the 1930’s.
Freemasonry might be thought of as a bastion of the establishment, deeply conservative (with a small “c”) and traditional. Yet, it emerged as a key part of the enlightenment, uniquely able to bring together people of different religious and political views based on the shared values of tolerance and respect that united them. Over the course of the last three-hundred years Freemasonry has been through many changes and is going through a new buoyant stage in its evolution as Freemasons, once again, feel comfortable talking about their membership.
In neither case does change mean that the organisations have to sweep away all traditions. Scouting still enjoys the outdoors, camp fires, knot tying and earning badges. Freemasonry still has its ceremonies and pomp, its allegorical dramas and – once again – its public processions. The changes the organisations have introduced do not erode their fundamental principles or values. They refresh the way the organisation connects with its members and potential members, to ensure that it is still relevant and attractive.
In fact, most changes are in the way the organisation themselves work or function, not in things that directly impact the purpose or ethos of the organisations.
During the 40th anniversary celebrations of the Princes Trust, the Prince of Wales was quoted as saying that, “It would be wrong to continue doing things that were right a few years ago, just because they worked then. The Trust”, he said, “must evolve if it is survive, it must adapt to continue to be attractive and relevant.”
The Royal Family – itself a Victorian development around the Monarchy – is an excellent example of how old institutions can evolve and change to meet the challenges of a changing world. Many of the public events we see today may appear to be ancient. In fact, some have a relatively recent origin, including the annual Garter Day, which was introduced in 1948. Every Coronation Service is an original invention featuring some traditional elements. Those events that do have an ancient origin, such as the annual Lord Mayor’s Show with more than 700 years of history, are regularly refreshed to combine traditional and contemporary elements. Indeed, the City of London’s institutions are outstanding examples of how traditions may continue and reach new audiences if they evolve within a modern framework. And who can deny that the younger generation of the Royal Family are not bringing that oldest and most traditional of institutions, the Monarchy, up to date with their focus on the most vulnerable in our society while they still fulfil their traditional role.
I firmly believe that evolution and change can and must live alongside tradition.
I can visit a Scout Group and see all the traditional activities and priorities taking place alongside modern activities and in contemporary uniforms. I can visit a 300 year old Masonic Lodge and witness traditions that go back to its origins, while references are made to development plans and online payment for meals.
If we lose all traditions we lose not only something of the unique flavour of the institution. We also break the continuous threads that stretch from the founders and predecessors to the present day stewards or guardians, whose responsibility it is to sustain something for future generations.
Charles Darwin developed his theory of natural selection to explain why some groups within populations thrive while others fail. This comes down to small variations between groups being favoured in the struggle for limited resources. Darwin said there is, “One general law, leading to the advancement of all organic beings, namely: multiply, vary, let the strongest live and the weakest die.” Perhaps a more familiar quote is by Megginson who said, “It is not the strongest that survive, nor the fittest, but those best suited to their environment and best able to manage change.” And Carl Sagan said, “Extinction is the rule. Survival is the exception.”
So, if we want our companies, organisations and institutions to survive, even thrive, we must allow them to evolve and change, so that they can connect with new markets, members and audiences. But, we must also cherish and preserve our traditions and heritage so that we can appreciate our origins and our historic development and realise that something that is worthy should be passed on better than it was when we found it.