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?

1 comment:

  1. John, I think this is an excellent way to examine an organization's health and critically consider how actions now may impact the future. Thanks for writing such a thought-provoking blog article.

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