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.