Leadership and the Loud (but small) Crowd

This post is for all the young leaders out there, because the old ones like me will know exactly what I’m talking about.

I hope you feel the internal struggle between taking bold action or staying the course, for that is the journey of a leader.  Should you be aggressive in your vision, or patient and methodical?  Should your leadership be defined by your ability to shake things up, or your ability to be a steward of something that’s already working?  All of these choices are fine, admirable, and acceptable.

However – let me speak to the side of you that wants to do something daring and compelling.  From my experience in organizational life, there is one barrier above all others to your efforts:

The loud vocal minority.

I have seen time and time again a leader or a group of leaders walk down an exciting path of new ideas and compelling new strategies only to be halted in their journey by someone who says “yeah, but [insert name here] won’t like it.”  And then it begins.  The retreat.  The belief that because a certain person or group of people won’t like an action or might even be angered by it, we should stop and reconsider.  And that thinking typically leads to the new ideas being revoked or tamped down so much they might as well have been.

I wonder, in the history of organizational life, what earth-shattering, life-changing, and gloriously-brilliant ideas have never seen the light of day out of fear that a small group won’t like them.

And in membership organizations especially, the threat that a segment of members will leave our ranks paralyzes us way too often.

Let me be clear – I believe the minority opinion is important to hear.  And I think the “squeaky wheels” deserve to be heard as well.  However, that’s why we have a democratic process and procedures like Roberts Rules of Order.  The minority opinion should have an opportunity to persuade others, and it should be made difficult to discount their feelings.

My problem is that those feelings often stop us from even putting forth an idea worth pursuing.  And that the next great idea dies in a committee meeting because we’re scared to make someone mad, or to deal with the slings and arrows of controversy.  The vocal minority tends to overrun the silent majority every time and holds leaders hostage in the process.

We all have these individuals in our organizations.  Those who have held on to even a shred of influence enough to make us overly-cautious.  The unfortunate reality is that we’re often waiting for those individuals to leave our organization (or die) before we try something we should have done years ago.

My advice in these situations is to remember that as a leader, your oversight is to the entire organization, its mission, vision, history, AND membership, NOT just those constantly noisy, angry, and change-averse.

We imagine a mob at the front door ready to attack us, but it never actually comes.  We believe that a string of posts on our Facebook page that opposes our ideas means the whole world is against them.  We imagine our legacy to be tarnished by a battle with an old guard, whereas I've seen it bolstered instead.  I believe, and have borne witness to, that the pain we imagine from going against the loud vocal minority is far greater than the pain we actually feel.   

The regret of giving up on something that could have changed the fortunes of your organization likely feels much worse.

There are some reasons not to act on your own ideas and vision.  Make sure that a few angry phone calls, or tweets, or Facebook posts are not one of them.  Trust your instincts and do what’s best for your organization.

And remember this quote from Deepak Chopra: Every time you are tempted to react in the same old way, ask if you want to be a prisoner of the past or a pioneer of the future. 

Fraternity Needs Even More Tradition

Tulane Sig Ep's after serenading the university president
I love tradition.  I love the spark it can provide an organization.  In my Kiwanis Club, we have lots of traditions, and I’d be upset to see them go.  We sing at the start of every meeting – terribly – but we sing.  It feels good.  I don’t want my Kiwanis meeting to feel like a business meeting at the office.  I want something that touches my emotions and lifts my heart. 

Fraternities and sororities certainly are guilty of being tradition-bound organizations.  Tradition imprints almost all aspects of our identity, from the Greek names and letters we wear to the creeds we state loudly and proudly.

But there is a compelling reason for us to embrace our nature as tradition-bound organizations.  The origin of the word tradition is from the Latin traditio, which refers to something being transmitted, carried forth, and passed from one person to the next for safekeeping.  Organizations that have a great deal of tradition tend to last, because they inherently care about the safe passage of their organization from one generation to the next.

On occasion, there are calls for fraternities and sororities to change or get rid of some of their traditions.  This isn’t unusual for any institution, and neither is the typical negative response and reaction.  Churches come to mind as another organization that deals constantly with the push and shove of keeping or discarding traditions.

Why do we bristle so much when we our traditions are challenged?  It’s because we believe that losing them would mean losing a part of our identity.  And in some cases, it would.

The origins of the word tradition and standard definitions for it may not be enough for us to work with.  I believe in a five-point test to determine if something is indeed a tradition worth celebrating and keeping:
  1. Does it offer unique value to our organization and our members?
  2. Is it a longstanding practice that bridges the past with the present?
  3. Does it raise spirits and breathe life into our organization?
  4. Does it honor our organization, its members, and our legacy?
  5. Is it current with societal views on human relationships?
Thus, it is not the new theme party you started last year that you now believe you can’t live without.

It’s not a practice that includes hazing, harmful and destructive behavior, for that saps life from your organization and doesn’t honor your legacy.  Sorry – your alcohol-fueled big brother hunts or your pledge hell week is not a tradition. 

It can include the fact that your fraternity sings or chants (I love fraternities that sing), but not songs that disparage others or would be considered racist or homophobic.   

It can include awards you give each other, even some that are intentionally humorous or sarcastic.  Humor can certainly breathe life into your organization.  But there are ways to be humorous and honorable at the same time.

Sometimes a tradition to someone else can seem puny and dumb, but even those should not be casually dismissed.  My fraternity held a Senior Wills event each year, in which graduating seniors could pass down wisdom or items to younger members.  I saw men brought to tears over receiving an ugly, tattered, sweat-stained hat from an older member – because it was a piece of them. Other traditions can have no other purpose except to be fun or just produce fond memories.  Fine with me – as long as they can meet the test above.

Here is an exercise for you.  Besides Ritual – which is absolutely your most cherished tradition – what other traditions are sacred to your fraternity or sorority?  Use the test above as an evaluation tool.  Are there any that fall away?

Even our traditions that seem old-fashioned can be given new and remarkable life.  Consider lavaliering or pinning, which has been challenged as being hetero-centric and old-fashioned.  Forget the fact that it can be beautiful and symbolic.  Consider this story from Denison University in Ohio about a pinning ceremony that spoke volumes about the women involved and all those surrounding them.

As long as traditions meet the standards above, there’s plenty of room for more.  Let’s continue to find ways to take the best of what we are and who we are, and share that with others.  After all, that’s our finest tradition.