Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Retreats that Work

Man, I love retreats. In terms of team dynamics and organizational flow, there may be nothing better. My staff team probably wishes I didn't love them as much as I do.

In an environment that is constantly shifting and changing, retreats are needed more than ever. They allow us to refocus on our mission and objectives. They can also unplug us from the gadgets that rule our lives. There is something about an easel pad, markers, and honest eye-to-eye conversation that is just simply healthy.
Now, retreats can also be a phenomenal waste of time. They require thoughtful planning in order to be effective. Below are five points I’ve learned about retreats over the years, and I encourage you to add your own.

Point #1: The retreat needs to be productive.
A retreat should never be all about play. A retreat can be fun, but it’s a work day. Going to the local amusement park is not a retreat. If your supply list includes bathing suits, koozies, and suntan lotion, it’s also not a retreat. A retreat is a learning activity, and should be treated as such. It’s out-of-the-classroom learning, so it is indeed different in many ways. But it’s still generally an intellectual exercise. 

A brotherhood- or sisterhood-building social activity (such as rafting, camping, theme park, etc.) is fine, but “social activity” describes them accurately. Reserve “retreat” for the times in which participants are focused, ready to roll up their sleeves, and prepared to chart a better future for the organization. This doesn’t mean you sacrifice the teambuilding aspect. Don’t assume that brotherhood or sisterhood is built only through social events. In fact, the greatest teams are forged through collective action towards shared objectives. In other words, your “working” retreat will build greater connections and teamwork than any social activity could.

Point #2: It’s called a “retreat” for a reason. Go someplace different.
Brain science has proven that a change in venue can lead to a change in perspective. Retreats work best when participants feel that it is a special event, worthy of a different level of participation and thinking. A different venue can contribute to this feeling. Stay away from your chapter house, a classroom, or a meeting room in the student union. These are too ordinary. I personally encourage you to consider camps or other settings that incorporate nature. These types of venues can add a layer of calm and peacefulness to the event.
Any of the following are good options: Official retreat/conference centers, Boy Scout/Girl Scout/FFA/YMCA/Kiwanis camps, church facilities, restaurants with a unique feel, state parks, etc.

Cost might be a concern, but planning well advance will give you more options. Camps and parks are typically cheaper. Also consider distance and transportation when selecting a site.

Point #3: Your retreat needs a purpose.
Why do you need a retreat? Why is it being considered? What do you need to accomplish?
  • Identify and get problems out in the open.
  • Promote communication among all members.
  • Establish common goals and objectives.
  • Identify and relate the philosophy of the organization.
  • Transition new officers into their positions.
  • Have the members get to know each other on a deeper level.
  • Motivation; re-centering on purpose.
  • Discussion of values/Ritual.
Thinking about this beforehand will help you organize a retreat that best suits the members' needs. You could also plan a retreat that concentrates on one critical function of the organization, such as:
  • Recruitment Preparation - Educating members on effective recruitment and setting group recruitment goals.
  • Values Clarification - Helping participants understand themselves and others.
  • Leadership Development - Developing leadership skills to promote better committee members, committee chairs, or officers.
  • Risk Management - Teaching, clarifying, and gaining agreement on policies and procedures.
  • Scholastic Goal Setting - Giving members an opportunity to set personal and group goals in the area of academic achievement.
  • Pre/Post Initiation - Offering an opportunity for members to fully understand the impact of the oaths they are about to or have just taken.
  • Alumni Relations - Setting goals for improved alumni relations and programs. Gather suggestions from alumni or invite alumni to participate in this program.

Point #4: Beware the curse of the comfy couches.
Your retreat location should be comfortable, but that doesn’t mean you should sit all day. Full-day retreats commonly suffer from group malaise after lunch and as the afternoon carries on. Do as much as you can to make the retreat interactive, instead of a just a rotation of talking heads. Here are a couple of common tools for adding interactivity to a program:
  • The Partner Share: Instead of discussing a question or idea with the full group, ask participants to first talk about it with a fellow participant. This gives the quieter members a chance to share their ideas. After a few minutes, open it up for a larger discussion. You’ll likely get more and better responses.
  • The Small Group: Having ideas discussed in smaller groups of 5-8 participants works for many of the same reasons given above for the partner share. However, you can ask the small groups to accomplish more, such as solving one component of a larger question. For instance, if you are discussing academic achievement in the organization, you might assign smaller groups each of the following issues to discuss and make recommendations for: (1) recognizing academic achievement, (b) revising chapter academic standards, (c) utilizing campus resources, (d) programs to encourage academic success. You could also use small groups to teach a big topic, such as risk management policies. Assign small groups portions of the policies to review and teach back to the larger group in creative ways.
Breaking into smaller groups is also a great way to split up pledge classes, age groups, cliques, officers, new members, etc., which can add to the teambuilding element of the retreat.
Although they are often a target of complaints and groans, teambuilders and icebreakers can be effective for setting up a positive learning environment as well. You may get some evil glares from the participants, but weigh that against the boredom and lethargy that comes from inactivity. There are thousands of books and websites with ideas for teambuilders. The NIC resource “Brotherhood Building Activities” is one to add to your library, if it’s not already there. Also, your advisors and headquarters staff likely have a lot of options to share with you.

Point #5: You don’t need to do this alone.
The life of a Fraternity/Sorority Advisor can often be a constant deluge of negativity. They are always putting out fires and reacting to unfortunate incidents. Imagine a chapter leader walking into their office and inviting them to help facilitate a proactive retreat intent on building a stronger future for the fraternity or sorority. That’s the kind of work they want to be doing! The basic point is this – you have several caring individuals who would be willing to help you plan and implement the retreat. All you need to do is ask.

If you have a budget, there also many talented professional facilitators available to you.
I hope this has been helpful in some way. Leading, managing, and growing an organization like a fraternity or sorority is hard work. Going at it every single day can wear down even the greatest chapter. The strongest organizations know that in order to keep up their strength for the fight, on occasion, it’s necessary to retreat. Good luck!

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Advisor's Lament

Only 2 weeks left…

June cannot come soon enough.


Tired of the constant traffic in my office,

Tired of sorting through 100 e-mails a day.

I’ve had enough retreats, meetings, and programs to last me

The rest of my career.

I can’t remember what life was like

Before 9pm meetings,

And working Saturdays.

Ugh that freakin' end of year report!


It’s finals week!

The students won’t bother me now.

Only five voice-mails this morning!

Did I remember to send those cards to the graduating seniors?

Time to start on those 10 rec letters that were due last week.

It’s graduation day!

They’re almost gone!

“It’s nice to meet you Mrs. Johnson – your son was an outstanding president.”

What?? A blowout party where?? They destroyed what??

Can’t they just go home!


They’re gone.

Summer has begun!

The traffic in town is so much better.

Starbucks is calm.

At last it’s quiet here.

Only 10 e-mails today!

It’s so relaxing…so serene…so…


It just doesn't feel right around here.


And need them to hurry back.

August cannot come soon enough.

This post was originally posted in June 2009 and has been updated

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

A Fraternity to Believe In

To be or not to be…excellent. That is the question. I invite you to enjoy this classic clip from Wayne’s World 2, featuring the late Charlton Heston, noted for being one of the best actors of all time:

This scene has great lessons for our organizations. We have just become too comfortable with mediocrity. Let’s face it, many of our organizations are striving to just reach mediocrity.

It’s easy to see in movies when actors or actresses are just “mailing it in.” The same is true for fraternities and sororities. It’s those groups that shuffle around from obligation to obligation, seemingly uninterested and lethargic. It’s the opposite of watching a master at work – someone who wants to, who needs to – be the greatest at their chosen craft. It’s whoever that first guy was vs. Charlton Heston.

It begs the question, however, what “being your best” or “performing at peak level” really means for fraternities and sororities.

Is being excellent as a fraternity winning campus competitions? That’s a pretty superficial measure I think. What about winning the highest honors from your national fraternity? I wonder if sometimes that is just a measure of one’s ability to write an application.

How about Ritual? Is living by the teachings of your Ritual achieving excellence as a fraternity? Yes – if excellence is doing exactly what’s expected of you.

Excellence can include all of these things, but they still don’t say enough. There seems to be an intangible quality to excellence, resulting in the old “I know it when I see it” test.

How about if excellence were this: getting others to believe in you. What if it meant performing in a manner that goes so far above an expected standard, that you become an aspiration for others?

Consider three sororities on a given campus. When interviewed about the first one, the university President states: “I like that sorority.” On the second, he comments “I trust that sorority.” On the third, he remarks “I believe in that sorority.” Each sorority is regarded as outstanding, but only one is excellent. It’s the one that changes the President’s perspective from “they simply exist” to “I want them to exist.” Or even, “I need them to exist.”

When someone like Charlton Heston steps in front of the camera, we believe in him. We know that a good performance will follow. In that scene, we wanted him in that role.

If you can get people – ranging from recruits to advisors – to say that they believe in you, then you know that you’re performing at a high level. And by the way, I can believe in a fraternity even if they don’t win a single Greek Week event, so collectively we need to adjust what excellence really means.

So, what are you doing as an organization that would cause someone to say that they believe in you? Is your performance worth watching? Imagine the audience is filled with your founders, great alumni of the past, campus administrators, parents, etc. Would they stand and cheer for you? Would your performance move them to tears? Or, would they rather yank your fraternity and find a better stand-in?

When you believe in something, you protect it. You share it with others. It becomes a rock for you. It’s the same for how we cherish our own Rituals. What if others regarded fraternities as the “Ritual books” for the rest of society? As the place to turn to for leadership, scholarship, service, and other values.

That’s more than taking home a trophy. That’s knowing that you matter. Undeniably.

How much better would the fraternity movement, our organizations, and our members be if we no longer sought to just be tolerated, or liked, or accepted? What if we sought to be an aspiration for others? To do so much good that those around us could not avoid the desire to believe in us and what we’re doing. That would be, as they say in Wayne's World, excellent!

Sunday, April 30, 2017

As Universities Grow Soft, Fraternities Must Stay Tough

Some headlines within the last couple of years:
SFGate: UC Berkeley orders cancellation of Ann Coulter speech
I’m worried about what’s happening to colleges and universities and their missions to prepare students for a productive and consequential life. I know it’s easy to react to headlines and think it’s a systemic problem, when maybe it’s not, but regardless, it’s worth discussing.

For me colleges and universities are places in which people should be toughened, strengthened, and their skin made thicker.  They are not places in which students should emerge softer, scared of their own shadows, or unable to deal with difficult conversations.

After all, college is what stands between a high school “kid” and a real world “adult.”

This is not to say that eyes should not be opened or that a wider view of life should not be unveiled. I believe firmly that colleges and universities fulfill an essential role in our society if their graduates emerge with a greater understanding of and appreciation for human differences. 

But why then, is a speech by an environmentalist or a human rights advocate in the campus setting okay, but a conservative political thinker is not okay?

I get this sense that our society is shifting to a K-16 education system, which is problematic on a couple of fronts. First, focusing on a college as a necessity leaves behind a big population of students. Secondly, it fools us into believing that college students should still live underneath the safe school umbrella that was held over their heads in high school.

It wasn’t that long ago in human history that 18 year-olds were managing an entire homestead, working in a factory, and/or dealing with life and death adult issues on a routine basis.  Even today, there are 18-year-olds that strap on the uniform of our country and go into the depths of hell on our behalf.

And yet, the 18-year-olds (even 22-year-olds) living in their well-manicured and heavily-resourced comfortable campus communities can’t be exposed to the ideas of Ann Coulter?

A caveat - in the real world, there are places in which people that feel persecuted or endangered can go to seek solace and support. Campuses should have these too. From what I've read (I accept that's not always the best research strategy) it seems that the safe place idea is becoming so wide and distributed, that it doesn't mean what it should and is open to being mocked.  It now means shelter from opposing viewpoints, as opposed to support networks for those who feel truly threatened. 

This world is tough. Living here on this rock takes resolve and grit and determination. If we are to solve our greatest social challenges, we need strength. The world overall is not a safe space, and it’s inhabitants must be able to operate within it.

Sure, it takes courage to voice an opinion.  But it also takes courage to live with and work alongside other human beings that think your opinion is wrong and be okay with that. 

So where does fraternity fit? I've said before that I believe fraternities to be the one remaining place on a college campus where real leadership is learned and practiced. Why? Because, for the most part, fraternities are still self-governed entities without a lot of micromanaging by advisors (although this is in jeopardy as well). In addition to being this practical, real-life laboratory of leadership, fraternities can and should remain places where free speech is allowed, opinions are freely shared, and personal animosities are managed through conversation and not heavy-handed silencing. A fraternity should be as free and open as the public square, consequences be damned.

But here's the thing...the goal of silencing certain speakers or creating safe spaces is to further acceptance and inclusivity.  It's a well-intentioned goal but the tactics are ineffective, emotionally-driven, and create the opposite result. However, the greater goal can still be achieved by actually fostering environments where issues are hammered out, debate is encouraged, new perspectives are awakened, and more. These are the environments that fraternities are ripe to produce.  They may not be safe spaces per se, but they will be educational ones.  

And, remember, education is the ultimate purpose for institutions of higher education.

To summarize, by being a sanctuary on the modern college campus for free speech and free expression of ideas, today's college fraternity can provide an important contribution to the goal of creating a more accepting and inclusive society.  Not a bad way to frame our continued relevance, huh?

Here are some quick ideas:
  • Open up your fraternity house doors for a series of conversations on important issues of the day. When I was an undergraduate at Miami, the IFC held "dessert and dialogue" sessions at chapter facilities.  We would invite two (or more) sides of an important political hot-button issue to debate it in front of students and then field questions.
  • This sounds terribly old-fashioned, but if you have a chapter facility, be sure you're getting one local and one national newspaper delivered. Throw in a few magazines such as Time, Newsweek, etc. You might be surprised at how access to materials like this can lead to simple (and impactful) discussions around the dinner table.
  • Before rush/recruitment season begins, devote time as a chapter to have a discussion around the importance of looking for diversity of all kinds in the potential members. Lay it out plain: we do not select members based on their political viewpoints, religious ideologies, race, sexual orientation, and so forth. We select them based upon their commitment to our values, and our belief in how much and in what ways they can make the chapter stronger.
  • Chapter leaders should stay observant of how dialogue and discussion takes place in the chapter. Acknowledge and show appreciation for those moments when brothers disagree (even if tempers flare) as long as they continue to respect each other after the fact. 
  • Be a leading organization on your campus for free speech. Support campus efforts to bring a wide variance of viewpoints by attending speakers, diversity awareness sessions, rallies and marches in large numbers.

By doing things like this, and ensuring that your fraternity chapter environment is not devoid of the true stuff of the real world - debate, disagreements, and tense discussions - then fraternity members all over will emerge from higher education as the most prepared to make it in this world...and make the world better too.

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Do Strong Fraternity Stuff

I am a big fan of Dave Ramsey, who is a financial management guru famous for his radio show and bestselling books.  His style is to give tough love to people, not allowing them to make excuses for their financial situations.  His message is well-received because it’s simple: get debt-free, live debt-free, build wealth slowly, and after you’ve succeeded, give lots of it away.

One of his primary messages is a principle that is so simple, it’s profound:  If you want to be rich, do what rich people do (do “rich people stuff” as he says).  If you want to stay poor, keep doing what poor people do. 

Here is a great quote from his website:
If you are broke, you will become rich when you do rich people stuff with your money. Find out what the habits of rich people are and do them, and you will become one of them. How do I know this?  Seventy-eight percent of America's millionaires are first- generation rich. They started with nothing and became millionaires. If you do poor people stuff with your money, you will become poor people. If you are rich and you do poor people stuff with your money, you will become poor people. "Rich" isn't an amount of money; it's a mindset in how you live. I've been broke, but I've never been poor because when I was broke, I just had no money. It wasn't that I had no hope. It wasn't that I didn't believe I could win. It wasn't that I was unwilling to sacrifice.
What is “rich people stuff?”  He shares many examples that come from research and studies about millionaires.  They work their tails off to get out of debt, and then pay cash for everything.  They invest wisely and patiently.  They buy used cars with cash instead of new ones with loans.  And they live frugally.

This goes against conventional wisdom, doesn’t it?  Rich people either inherit their money or lie and cheat to get it, right?  Not according to the research.  They have very distinct behaviors and make very thoughtful decisions.

Stuff that poor people do includes things like living by credit cards, payday loans, adding debt upon debt, not saving, and frivolous spending. 

So, while our emotions may say that it’s unfair that rich people are that way, our logic should tell us that if we make the right choices and behave in a disciplined way, we can join them.

The same is true for fraternity success.  If you want to be a strong fraternity, do “strong fraternity stuff.” 

But, like rich people, we tend to demonize strong fraternities.  We hate them for all the awards they win, all the recruits they get, and all the attention they receive.  Instead of learning from them, we dismiss their success (yet secretly hope we have the same).

Let go of your envy or jealousy about the highly successful fraternities, and start observing what they do.  You can be right there with them.  One of the benefits of a Greek system is that we see several examples of how to do fraternity happening at once.  In any given Greek system, we see the range of success, from chapters that are failing completely to those that are knocking the ball out of the park. 

There is no cap on how many successful fraternities there can be.  The problem is, too many of us choose to just be mediocre, because like many people, we’re just waiting to win the lottery or for some other stroke of ridiculous good luck.  Wealth isn’t built that way.  Neither is organizational success.

It’s an old but true quote – don’t wait for your ship to come in.  Swim out to it.

So, what is “strong fraternity stuff?”  We don't have very detailed studies on this, but based upon years of observation, awards judging, and common sense, here are a few things to consider:
  • Strong fraternities are extremely discerning in recruitment.  So much so, that they have a very low pledge dropout rate.  They pick the right guys from the start.
  • Strong fraternities are quick and nimble.  For example, when a natural disaster strikes, they have tables set up within hours to collect donations and a van full of members heading towards the relief efforts.
  • Strong fraternities practice and perform the Ritual ceremonies with precision.  They treat membership initiation with the same reverence that new colonies do.
  • Strong fraternities care about presence.  They strive to look impressive and act confidently when showing their public persona.
  • Strong fraternities have high chapter GPA’s because they recruit high academic performers.  They realize that recruiting a low performer and thinking they can change him/her is unrealistic.
  • Strong fraternities do not take shortcuts in recruitment.  It’s person-to-person, time consuming, focused work.  They know it’s their lifeblood as an organization and they prioritize it that way.
The list goes on.  The main point here is that a strong fraternity is not something to ignore.  Or complain about.  Or hate.  It’s something to observe, study, and possibly emulate.  Fraternity success is not by accident.  Nor is fraternity failure.  Choose your examples wisely.

This essay was originally posted in August 2012 and has been updated.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

STOP THE DRAMA: 7 questions that can help leaders disengage from the distracting drama that pulls them off their priorities

The top elected leaders of membership organizations often must contend with many unseen and unexpected challenges during their term in office.  From a leadership standpoint, there is one challenge that can consume a leader and force him/her away from goals and priorities. Drama.

Yep, drama. It can grab a chapter, council, or national president by the ear and spin him or her around.  Drama, if left unchecked, can define the tone and tenor of a leader’s term. It can spread like fire, especially since we, as leaders, tend to actively add accelerants.

What is drama?  Within the context of organizational leadership, drama can best be defined as a personal and emotionally-driven issue or agenda that one person desires to expand beyond him or herself.  And the elected leaders of the organization stand in position to be the perfect conduit by which to scale up the drama.

Practically, drama can appear in any of these ways:
  • Personal animosities, and trying to turn one side against the other.
  • Rumors, gossip, and hearsay.
  • Trying to give a personal opinion more weight than it deserves.
  • Complaints against other leaders or staff.

Now each of the above can appear in productive ways too.  For example, if a member has an opinion he wants to have heard, then speaking up at a chapter meeting or executive officer meeting is an effective way for it to be expressed.  There should also be structured ways to give more critical complaints.  These things become drama when an individual tries to use a personal relationship with a particular leader to advance his or her singular agenda.  The president gets pulled aside after a meeting, or gets stopped in the hallway, or is cornered at a convention.  It could also come via social media or email.

And it’s very difficult for the president to not want to listen, to help, and to support the person talking to them in that moment.

But there is a very important realization that mature leaders discover, and it stands opposite to what we have always understood elected leadership to mean: you are not the leader of the people.  It is not your job to hear and react to each and every individual need, and trying to do so most often leads to ineffective results for all parties.  Rather, the mature view on this is that elected leaders have a clearly defined role as stated in your governing documents, and “staying in your lane” is often the best service you can give to the organization and yourself.  If I read your bylaws, it probably says that you are responsible for the overall strategic direction of the organization, lead the officer team towards those ends, and represent the organization to the external public.  It likely doesn’t say that you should spend hours listening to a disgruntled senior complain about the location for this year’s formal.

Trying to be an individual champion to member needs can be noble, but can also be self-serving.  It may allow you appear to be egalitarian and responsive, but at the expense of effective and efficient results for those who need help.  It can distract you and take you away from your priorities.  And it only fuels the drama.

You weren’t elected or chosen so that you can devote your precious energy to small things or things that are others’ responsibilities. You were chosen to lead on the big things, to set direction, to devise strategies, to achieve vision. 

If you aren’t careful, you’ll be standing at the end of your term looking back at small and endless bouts with drama instead of the lofty organizational progress you desired.

Those leaders that draw drama tend to be those that (a) feel that as a leader they should be capable of solving all problems, (b) are self-centered in that they don't believe others can be more capable than them, (c) have an extraordinary desire to be liked, and (d) are drama producers and enthusiasts themselves.

So what do you do? Do you completely isolate yourself in fear of being absorbed with drama and individual needs?  That’s impossible.  Instead, you need to be discerning and thoughtful with how you respond.  Below is a checklist of questions to ask yourself to decide if a personal need is a legitimate use of your valuable and focused time as a leader, or is just drama waiting to be unleashed:

  1. Is this my concern and does it truly deserve my attention?  This is a fundamental question. Remember, stay in your lane.  Sub-questions would be (a) will solving this situation help me perform my role more effectively, (b) will it reduce (not increase) my workload, and (c) can be justified in terms of my vision, goals, and priorities?
  2. Can I see this issue being solved more quickly, easily, and effectively by someone else? For those alumni leaders reading this, often we want to solve problems for others instead of turn to our paid professional staff.  Yet, the staff can handle it and our interference will likely cause an unnecessary duplication of service.
  3. If I choose to intervene, could my involvement be disruptive or disrespectful to someone else? If you, as the top elected leader, involve yourself in a situation that really belongs to someone else, it can erode trust and the sense of teamwork among your leadership team.
  4. If I choose to intervene, would my involvement likely take my focus away from other things? Be realistic. There is only so much time and energy in a day, and in an officer term. What will you need to sacrifice in order to champion this more personal need?
  5. What is the most definitive response I can give at this moment?  One of the worst answers you can give is “I will look into it for you.” While it passes off the concern temporarily, it means you’ve taken it on as a project.  Try to be definitive and say things like “you need to contact [name]” or “I don’t have the bandwidth to take this on, but perhaps the next president can” or…get ready for it…”No, I’m sorry but I can’t make that a priority right now.” 
  6. If this is a complaint, am I being objective?  The drama-producer wants nothing more than you to validate their concern. Try to remain neutral so that you don’t inadvertently throw a fellow leader or staff member under the bus.
  7. If this is a new idea, am I being measured and not making promises? If someone is invested in an idea, and they hear from the top elected leader that it’s good, or will work, or can work, or any version of the same, he/she will latch on to that as a solid commitment. Some good responses include “I’ll take time to give that more consideration” or “I’ll give some thought to how that fits into our goals and priorities.” Of course, see number 6 above. If you don’t see the idea panning out, don’t lead the person on.
A quick caveat: a complaint or concern that levies a very serious charge or accusation against a person should be addressed.  For instance, if you hear gossip that someone is stealing from the organization, or abusing his/her position, or doing something else illegal, then it’s your obligation to investigate.  

But for most issues, you can actively steer away from the drama by asking good questions of yourself and being appropriately locked into your role and responsibilities.  Drama is an untamed beast, and the more you feed it, the more it will want to consume you. Stay above the drama and lead.

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.