Wednesday, June 10, 2015

If You Have a Fast Race Horse, Don't Slow Down

Updated from June 2011

Congratulations to American Pharaoh, the first triple crown winner in horse racing since 1978.  One of the most difficult feats in sports was achieved just a few days ago and hopefully you were able to witness history.

Despite American Pharaoh's success, the most well-known triple crown winner will likely always remain the 1978 winner, Secretariat. He has been the subject of books and movies, and is typically regarded as the best racehorse to have ever lived.  Part of his legend lies in how he finished the triple crown - that final race at the Belmont Stakes.

All the dramatic pieces were in place for the final race, the Belmont Stakes: the champ (Secretariat), the hyped-up challenger (a horse named Champ), and history on the line.  The typical formula (see Rocky or Remember the Titans) for these kinds of stories is that the hero fights the battle of his life, appears defeated, only to valiantly battle back to barely win, sending the crowd into a frenzy.  That wasn’t the case with Secretariat.  He blew the doors off the competition and won by thirty lengths.  It wasn’t close at all.  The outcome was decided almost immediately after the gates opened.

And I found this to be refreshing for some reason.  Secretariat was clearly the best horse at the time and he knew it.  He flew.  And while I can gain satisfaction from the underdog stories, I learned that I could find equal satisfaction in watching a truly special champion just do all that he was capable of.  Without apology.

Relate this to fraternity and sorority life.  On most campuses, there are chapters that are the Secretariats of their Greek system.  They have all pistons firing, and are leading the pack in service, academics, recruitment, etc. 

Our underdog mindset sometimes wants us to tell these groups to slow down.  To let others catch up.  The Secretariats can take so much of the spotlight that they can become tiresome.  It’s like dominate sports teams.  We can get tired of their success, and thus want to see others take a turn.

Slow down Secretariat!

I may be naive about this, but I believe that most of the time, groups that are successful and groups that struggle do not get to those points by accident.  However, our underdog mentality can drift into dangerous territory – fairness.

It’s not fair that some fraternities or sororities are at the top, while others can’t seem to get there!  Every group deserves that success!  There must be equality!

Slow down Secretariat!

Of course, this isn’t a perfect analogy.  There isn’t a race we’re trying to win.  Sometimes, environmental factors can play a role.  Our groups at the top aren’t perfect, and shouldn’t be treated that way.  Caring about the plight of others is a value we hold dear.  I understand all of that.

And yet, I believe that sometimes we actively try to slow lead horses down to the rest of pack instead of expecting the rest of the pack to catch up to the lead horses. 

Slow down Secretariat!

And I don’t think the answer is for the lead horses to stop and try to teach the rest the secrets to their success.  Besides, the secrets are most likely very obvious: focus and hard work.
I think the answer is to just let the lead horses run, in all their glory, for all to see.  If they deserve the award – give it to them.  If they win the competitions, congratulate them.  If they have the highest GPA (again), praise them far and wide.

After all, what you reward is what you get.  What you praise and acknowledge sends a loud and clear signal about what you value.  It may make others cringe with frustration or envy.  It also leaves them with a choice – stay behind or raise their game.

It's not selfish to want excellence.  The greatest service that the high-performing fraternities and sororities can provide to their communities is to remain high-performing. 

For the members reading this, if you have a racehorse that can win by 30 lengths, ride it for all it can give you.  But, a little humility doesn’t hurt either. 

I will probably still always root for the underdog.  It’s a much more compelling story.  There is so much to learn from the grit and determination of someone who defies the odds.  However, I’ll keep it as my goal to also appreciate shear brilliance when I see it.  My enjoyment in the underdog should never give me reason to deny anybody or anything the chance to show their true excellence.

Go Secretariat...Go American Pharaoh...



  1. These last few post have been great! I have shared a couple with the chapter I advise and I hope that they are getting as much out of these posts as I am! Thanks!

  2. Having had the pleasure of seeing Secretariat in a pasture after his retirement, let me tell you, that was some horse. There are sororities and fraternities who seem to be perennially to be at the "top of the heap". Perhaps they are simply doing things right. Over time, they all seem to ebb and flow. Just give it that time.