Wednesday, February 8, 2017

The Best Fraternity on Campus! For Now.

There is a great book by Jim Collins (of Good to Great fame) called “How the Mighty Fall.” In this book, Mr. Collins describes how businesses that were once the top of their industry lose their footing and fall quickly to rock bottom. From his research, he frames 5 stages that seem to be consistent among these businesses:
Stage One: Hubris Born of Success
Organizations that reach a high level of success can fall victim to the arrogant notion that they will always be there. For these organizations, success becomes an entitlement, forgetting the hard work, tough decisions, chance, and lucky breaks that were needed to get there.

Stage Two: Undisciplined Pursuit of More
The hubris of stage one leads these organizations to feel that they can take undisciplined leaps into areas where they cannot be great. Instead of disciplined initiative, strategic planning, and thoughtful creativity, they overreach.

Stage Three: Denial of Risk and Peril
Whereas some external signs may still signal success, there are growing internal warnings that disaster is near. However, these warnings are ignored. The blame game also begins – with organizational leaders making excuses for mounting problems.

Stage Four: Grasping for Salvation
Now that decline is evident, leaders begin searching for a miracle cure. According to Mr. Collins, such cures include: “a charismatic visionary leader, a bold but untested strategy, a radical transformation, a dramatic cultural revolution, a hoped-for blockbuster product, a ‘game-changing’ acquisition, or any number of other silver-bullet solutions (p. 22).”

Stage Five: Capitulation to Irrelevance or Death
If the direction cannot be reversed in any of the preceding stages, it’s over.
I found many of the lessons and stories in the book to be relevant for Greek-letter organizations. After all, we spend a lot of time focusing on who is the best. We also all know fraternities or sororities that gloat or are cocky about their success. Success in fraternity and sorority is often like a roller coaster. The successful chapters on any given campus were not the same ones 10 years ago.

I encourage you to read the book and draw your own conclusions, but here are the primary lessons I found:

Arrogance and Entitlement
Are you the best fraternity or sorority on campus? Are you the best national organization? Why? What justifies you declaring that? How do you prove that to potential members? Being the “best” in anything is tough to measure (except for perhaps athletic competitions or awards). Oftentimes, it is left to the eyes of the beholder. I actually love it when Greek organizations tell me that they are the “best,” because now that they’ve declared it, they need to back it up. There is nothing wrong with having confidence and striving to be your definition of the “best.” Just beware of hubris. Beware of the level of arrogance that makes others root for your demise. Those who gloat the loudest on the way up often shriek the loudest on the way down.

There are certainly times in the course of a fraternity or sorority’s life when things are going very well. Those are times to celebrate. Cautiously. Almost every Greek-letter organization that has a precipitous fall from grace once felt indestructible; once thought the good times would last forever; once felt that they were the best.

At the same time, you shouldn’t lead with panic or fear that the end is near. Nobody wants to follow a doomsayer or join a negative organization.

The key is to avoid the arrogance that leads to an entitlement mindset. Your success was earned – most likely by the hard work of leaders before you. Luck and chance probably played a role too. Stay humble about your success, and keep searching for more.

Arrogance can lead to complacency as well. Once we start believing that we are entitled to our success, we stop working for it. We stop expecting it in our new recruits. Consider these two statements and the type of individual that would be attracted to them:
  • Join us – we’re the best!
  • Join us – we want to be the best!
Both messages would likely get quality men and women. However, the second message would get quality men and women who want to work; who want to leave their mark; who want to build the ship, not just ride on it.

Reaching Too Far
Most of the companies profiled by Mr. Collins drifted away from their core purposes and missions. They felt so entitled to their success, that they felt anything they touched would turn to gold. By shifting attention away from their core, they let their most important aspects atrophy.

In fact, almost all of the organizations that reversed the downward spiral did so by reclaiming their core purpose. For example, Xerox experimented with all sorts of new services (such as financial services), but soon found themselves falling. When they returned to their core business – printing and copying – they started to see success again. They experienced the danger of overreaching.

In the fraternity/sorority world, we see overreach in different ways. For example, groups that taste the success of being the biggest organization on campus may suddenly feel the need to focus only on numbers. They begin bidding members that they would have denied in their growth stage.

Some national organizations fall victim to the “keeping up with the Jones’s” mentality. The growth of membership development programs are an example of this. Sigma Phi Epsilon’s success with The Balanced Man program was met with a flurry of “we’ve got to have one too!” statements in board rooms across the country. Many of these efforts have failed. What if these organizations spent time focusing on what they do best, rather than spend their energy on what others do best?

Don’t Get Radical
The case studies and examples Mr. Collins uses in the book signal something very important: when an organization is in a vulnerable place, radical change is NOT a good idea. Those companies that pulled themselves out of their decline did so by incremental change, tough decisions, and by honoring the past. Like these organizations, fraternities that face a decline should avoid redefining themselves, and rather, rediscover themselves.

There is a great principle from Appreciative Inquiry: in every human situation, something works. The key for leaders is to keep the best from the past, and change the rest. Something is working. Don’t flip everything upside down. A radical, transforming kind of change will most likely speed up the decline.

Be a Survivor
This passage from the book caught my eye:
“The point of the struggle is not just to survive, but to build an enterprise that makes such a distinctive impact on the world it touches, and does so with such superior performance, that it would leave a gaping hole – a hole that could not be easily filled by any other institution – if it ceased to exist (p. 112)."
Does this describe your fraternity or sorority? Would there be a gaping hole in the universe if your organization was gone? The work of a leader is to build a culture of continuous excellence in your chapter – so that it can survive downward turns. I need to think this through some more, but here is an initial list of what I believe is needed for an organization to be a survivor:

  • Constant care for the Ritual and how it is taught and practiced daily. 
  • Relentless focus on financial solvency. 
  • A culture of continuous, year-round recruitment. 
  • The elimination of hazing practices, dangerous drinking, and other risky behaviors. 
  • Working hard to change the belief that a house for the chapter is essential (after all, if it burns down, could you carry on without hesitation)? 
  • Anything you would add?

I recommend reading the book, or reading other summaries at least. We try so hard to learn from those that excel in our world, and sometimes the best lessons come from those who fall. You may be the best on campus. But, when will it be your turn to ride the downward slope? What will you do when that rocky bottom is approaching fast?

Source: How the Mighty Fall (2008), by Jim Collins

This post was originally published July 1, 2010 and has been updated.

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Fraternity and the Power of Reception

Let’s visit about the topic of new member education.

Recruitment numbers for Greek organizations are still rising, and from that standpoint, fraternity and sorority life seems healthy.  There now exists an opportunity to build the largest and greatest generation of fraternity and sorority members our movement has ever known.  Or, we could squander this chance. Will all these new recruits become an energizing and life-giving force that brings us closer to the true purpose of fraternity, or, might they do the opposite?  

For all the boasting I see from one national fraternity to the next about the record-breaking size of their initiate class, can even one of them boast that these new men or women are record-breaking in terms of being values-centric?  Or that their fraternities are meeting mission more than ever before? There are more people coming in the door, but can we truly say our movement is changing in any significant way? 

Other than it’s quantifiably bigger? 

For this next generation to bring fraternity closer to its ideal, they need to be the ones brought closest to the Ritual.  In support of this vision, it’s time to rethink the purpose and value of new member education.  

If the pinnacle of the fraternity experience is the Ritual and hence the revelation of her truths, then something very significant stands between a young man or woman’s decision to join and this profound moment: new member education. 

It’s time to truly examine the concept of new member education in fraternity and sorority life and frame it in terms of its true purpose.  Which of course begs the question…what is the true purpose of new member education?   

To get there, consider this thought which someone passed along to me recently: in order to receive a gift that is profound, one must be willing and prepared to receive it.  If they are unwilling, then the gift is dismissed.  If they are not prepared, then the gift loses its significance.  This is the power of reception.   

The Ritual is a gift.  It is the most precious gift the fraternity can bestow upon a member.  It is the gift that needs to be willingly accepted and received in order to attain the other gifts of fraternity, such as brotherhood and benevolence.  

And could it be that one of the fundamental problems in fraternity and sorority life these days is that we do not adequately prepare young men and women to receive this gift.  For most chapters, Ritual seems to act like a punctuation mark on pledging, but is not treated as the reason why we have new member education to begin with.  We cloud new member education with all sorts of ineffective and tangential elements and then leave the Ritual to stand alone in itattempt to be a watershed moment.  

And so, in my view, the primary purpose of new member education is to prepare men and women to receive the ultimate gift of the fraternity/sorority experience, the Ritual. 

If at the end of a new member education, a new member cannot say he or she is ready to receive the Ritual, and furthermore, after receiving the Ritual, cannot identify its lessons and the power behind them, then your new member education is worthless.  It doesn’t matter if the new member could stand on his head and recite the Greek alphabet backwards while juggling bowling balls with his feet. A powerful reception to the Ritual is the ONLY way to judge the effectiveness of your new member education. 

It’s not to say some of the areas you already focus on do not matter. 

New member education can teach the history of fraternity, for context is important for preparation. 

New member education can introduce the members to each other, since a supportive community can help aid in reception. 

New member education can focus on the development of self-awareness, since knowing oneself can more fully open one’s heart and mind to the Ritual.  
What it cannot do is weaken the will or fortitude of the new members through hazing or ridiculous and pointless activities. To enter into the Ritual in a weakened, broken-down, or inebriated state does not allow one to receive its power.  You can walk through the motions, but make no mistake what you have done through hazing, hell weeks, or the like: you have profaned the very essence of fraternity because you have stripped away an individual’s ability to be receptive to its core message.

So, what does a new member education program look like that prepares a person to receive the Ritual? One simple way to view it is to imagine that Ritual is like the Bible, and new member education is a Bible study.

Consider some of these “radical” notions:

What if the Ritual book was the textbook for new member education? And, the book was read and analyzed entirely before the ceremony of initiation? You could still hold a few of the secrets back. But the language in our Rituals is so verbose and carefully written, it's a lot for someone to absorb and appreciate by just listening.

What if our new members rehearsed the Ritual ceremony prior to it taking place? Weddings have rehearsals, and it doesn't make the actual wedding ceremonies any less important. It just makes participants more prepared and thus more able to comprehend what's happening.

What if the a new member's big brother / big sister was required to attend all new member education sessions as well, and their role was redesigned to be similar to someone sponsoring a new member into a faith community. In other words, their role is to help prepare the new member to receive the Ritual.

In previous posts I have argued that pledging is unnecessary and should be eliminated. My extreme position was based upon pledging and new member education continuing to be what it is today, and has been for decades. If it can be reformed to be an experience that equips a new member to have a powerful reception to the Ritual, then my argument changes from unnecessary to essential.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Resolutions Revised

 Focus on better priorities.
   Focus on different priorities.
      Spend more time with family.

          Call mom more often.

Focus more on my fraternity.

Win the chapter of the year award.

    Earn the chapter of the year award.

Have better chapter meetings.
   Have shorter chapter meetings.
      Have more relevant chapter meetings.

Do 100 service hours.
   Do 200 service hours.
      Do 300 service hours. 
         Do as much service as we can - as often as possible.

Be more like that fraternity across the street.

    Be more like that fraternity our founders intended.

Recruit a lot more members.
   Stop focusing on quantity, and start focusing on quality.
       Wait.We can have both.

Memorize the creed.

    Internalize the creed.

 Win Greek Week.  Sure, why not.

Get more guys to live in the house.

   Make the house more of a home.

Redefine my fraternity’s purpose.

    Rediscover my fraternity’s purpose.

Hang out with my brothers more.

    Learn something new and profound about each of my brothers.

Be a better brother.
   Be the best brother that I can be.
       Just listen more.

Stop being a competitive jerk and caring so much about winning.
    Keep being competitive and care more about winning. Just stop being a jerk.

Be better about writing on friends’ Facebook walls.

    Invest in a jumbo pack of greeting cards and a good ballpoint pen.

 Spend more time on
    It's time to grow up.

Party more.
    Contribute more.

Be a better member.

    Be a stronger leader.

Learn to be more satisfied.

Learn to be more comfortable.

Leave a legacy.

    Do something significant that impacts others.

Give my soul to my fraternity
    Give my time and talents to my fraternity.  Save my soul for myself.

happiness fulfillment.

glory respect.

recognized productive.

Spend more time relaxing.
  I can do that when I’m dead.

Make this a year to remember.
   Make this a year that matters.

Read my fraternity Ritual.
    Live my fraternity Ritual.

Be a better student.

    Live my fraternity Ritual.

Be someone that makes an impact.
   Be significant.
       Live my fraternity Ritual.

Be stronger.
   Be more courageous.
       Live my fraternity Ritual!

Be ethical.
    Be values-based.
      Be a role model.
          Be described as a man of high character.

             Live my fraternity Ritual!

Be a better man.

    Live my fraternity Ritual!  And call mom more often.