Tuesday, November 29, 2011

What Will the Historians Say?

Brothers, what we do in life echoes in eternity.
– Maximus (Russell Crowe in Gladiator)

The work you are doing with your fraternity, organization, career, etc. may be interesting, compelling, invigorating, and inspiring.

However, would it pass the Historian Test?

I’ve been working with this idea of a “Historian Test” for a few years now as a way to measure the quality of my work at Kiwanis.  Any organization can use it, and it’s really quite simple.  The test is based on a very apparent, yet often forgotten notion:  you are living through a moment of your organization’s history.  How will this moment be described by those historians who will analyze it in the future? 

Here is another way to look at it:  Let’s say your chapter was to fold 20 years from now – in the year 2031.  If historians were to begin studying the reasons why, and researched back to the year 2011, how would they say you were spending your time?  What issues were you discussing?  What decisions were you making?  What were your priorities back then (er, now)?

Based on what they found, what would they conclude about this point in history for your fraternity?  Were the minutes of your meetings full of trivial matters (party themes) or core issues (recruitment strategies)?  Were you making healthy organizational decisions, such as holding annual goal-setting retreats?  Or, were you making high-risk, low-reward decisions such as hosting raging keggers?

Those who study dead civilizations, like the ancient Mayans, can usually find a turning point – a period of history in which the decline began.  In those periods, scientists typically find reasons that could have been averted had the people been paying attention to what was going on around them.  Are you familiar with the phrase “fiddling while Rome burns?”

Renowned business author Jim Collins studied several corporations who each experienced a severe downturn to  uncover the reasons why.  I wrote about them in this post.  He discovered rampant complacency.  These businesses assumed their success would always last and neglected  preparations for their future.  Enron is another example of a fallen corporation that has been studied at depth by analysts and historians.

What about the current situation at Penn State?  Do you think Joe Paterno is spending every day asking himself if he did all he could years ago?  When the graduate assistant informed him of what he witnessed in the locker room, do you think he realized at the time that his decision to do the bare minimum would likely lead to his ouster 10 years later?

It doesn’t have to always be negative either.  Historians also look at successful organizations in order to discover what decisions they made to catapult them to unprecedented heights.  See the recent books and articles about the success of Apple and Facebook, for example.

So, what will historians say about your period in history?  What will they say about all of us – collectively – who are concerned about the future for fraternities and sororities?  Are we doing the right things to sustain these organizations we love?  Are we having the right discussions?  Are we spending resources on the things that are moving the needle, or on distractions instead?

At conferences like AFA, NASPA, or ACPA, are the speakers and workshops addressing issues of significance?  How will the proceedings of these meetings be judged by historians in the future?

When historians study your organization years from now, the phrase you most want to avoid them speaking aloud is: what were they thinking?

This is only one moment in history for your organization, but it’s your moment.  Your actions now will be recalled and remembered.  When the great story of your time is told, will you be proud of what and how much you did?  Will history be kind to you? 

Will you pass the Historian Test?

Saturday, November 12, 2011

An Invocation

(perhaps for your next chapter dinner)


Dear God-

For the innocent and vulnerable children who are victims of abuse,

May You help us develop our members into leaders strong enough to protect them,

To never ignore them,

To always confront those who would do them harm.

In a world that desperately needs individuals with courage and integrity, may the members we develop lead the way,

To step forward, when others shrink back; To stand up, when others sit down.

To do right, when others do nothing.

And for those victims,

Should they ever need a family of brothers or sisters to lean upon,

A sense of peace,

A rock around which to build a stronger life,

A place that respects them and gives them the dignity that they deserve,

Then grant us the strength, the wisdom, and the compassion,

To be a fraternity that will forever welcome them.


Amen.




Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Are Leaders Allowed to be Complete Jerks?

Like many of you, I spent the first day or so after Steve Jobs’ death admiring him and his accomplishments.  I did the obligatory tweet of praise, engaged in water-cooler chats about how visionary he was, and even liked a photo on Facebook of his silhouette inside an apple.   It was a really cool picture – look! -->

But after that first day, some other stories began to emerge.  For example, Steve Jobs Was a Jerk: Good For Him, Steve Jobs Was a Jerk and You Shouldn't Be, and What Everyone Is Too Polite to Say About Steve Jobs.  These stories formed a more complete picture of this industry titan.  While he was truly visionary, innovative, and entrepreneurial, he was often a world-class jerk.  One of those articles describes him this way:  

Before he was deposed from Apple the first time around, Jobs already had a reputation internally for acting like a tyrant. Jobs regularly belittled people, swore at them, and pressured them until they reached their breaking point. In the pursuit of greatness he cast aside politeness and empathy. His verbal abuse never stopped.” 

Given what is revealed in these articles, as well as the new book Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson, emulating him fully may not be the best idea.   

Of course, I recognize that it is unfair to judge someone you haven’t met.  These books and articles could be extreme portrayals.  Suffice to say, Jobs leadership style was probably more Bobby Knight than Mister Rogers.

If you get results as a leader, is it okay to be a complete a-hole during the journey?  How much does the “touchy-feely” side of leadership really matter?  If you can hold the trophy for top fraternity at the end of the year, should you care if you pissed off everyone in the process?  “What that’s you’re saying about hurting your feelings?  I can’t hear too well with this big freakin’ trophy in my ear!”
 

To be fair, there can be quite a difference between being demanding and being a jerk, although sometimes it may look the same.  Being tough on someone is a coaching technique that will often produce results.  Sometimes, a person just needs to be told in a direct manner that their performance is lacking and that expectations are not being met.  I’ve had coaches and teachers like that in my life.   

But, I’ve also had raving egoists in my life as well.  

The difference lies in who the leader is centered on.  If he/she is centered on the other, then it’s more of a “tough love” kind of coaching.  The goal is to try and help the other person achieve what they are capable of.  If the leader is centered on self, then the goal instead is to prop him/herself up at the expense of the other person.  Based on what I’ve read, Jobs wasn’t too concerned with the other person.

And yet, he achieved marvelous good for humankind.  His products have helped usher in a new wave of technology, which in turn has improved educational and economic conditions in many places.  So what if he belittled and bullied some people along the way?   

There is a lot written on being a relational leader and on the importance of emotional intelligence.  However, emotional intelligence did not invent the I-Phone.  In fact, an intentional lack of it might have instead.  

But then again, does that mean we can’t be disappointed, or extra cautious in following the examples of very public leaders?  You may want your child to be just like Steve Jobs.  I’m not so sure about it.  

Leaders always have shortcomings, and the perfect leader is a myth…isn’t it?  Leaders are human, and humans are flawed.   

You can try to be both a hard driver and a kind soul at the same time.  I do, although the driver role is clearly not my strong point.  Regardless, I am fascinated by people like Steve Jobs, who seem to have no desire at all to be liked – only respected for their achievements.   

If you had to decide, what would it be?  To be the nice guy or the mean S.O.B.?  To be too gentle or too aggressive?  To shrink into the group or unabashedly take your position at the front of it?  To see your people or the end result as the most important?  To be seen as likeable or tough?

There are many different styles of leadership.  It’s your call as to which you use.  It may come down to your answer to this question: should the leader be judged more for the results that he achieved, or the person that he was?