Category Archives: books

7 Books Every Fraternity Leader Should Read This Summer

1. The Lucifer Effect by Philip Zimbardo

Creator of the famous Stanford Prison Experiment asks, Why do good people commit evil acts? Zimbardo explains how cognitive dissonance, groupthink and other elements of behavioral psychology contribute to breakdowns in group decision making.

For fraternities, self-awareness can be a powerful anecdote to hazing. Mere knowledge of these group psychology phenomena is sometimes all it takes to change a chapter for the better.

2. Building Leaders the West Point Way by Major General Joseph P. Franklin

Think one of the nation’s premier leadership labs creates leaders through hazing? Think again:

“I handled this abuse as well as anyone, I guess, but I couldn’t help wondering what was going on. On the one hand, I was required to commit to memory this great pronouncement by Schofield and his farsighted, thoughtful approach to discipline; on the other hand, my day was an endless barrage of insults and threatened punishments. There seemed to be a clear and obvious contradiction, and yet nobody bothered to express it!

3. Strategic Intuition: The Creative Spark in Human Achievement by William Duggan

A refreshing complement to strategic planning. The best ideas often arrive as a flash of insight when we least expect it.

4. Sway: The Irresistible Pull of Irrational Behavior by Ori Brafman and Rom Brafman

“A provocative new book about the psychological forces that lead us to disregard facts or logic and behave in surprisingly irrational ways.” -New York Times

5. Mistakes Were Made (but not by me): Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions, and Hurtful Acts by Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson

“A revelatory study of how lovers, lawyers, doctors, politicians–and all of us–pull the wool over our own eyes. The politician who can’t apologize, the torturer who feels no guilt, the co-worker who’ll say anything to win an argument–in case you’ve ever wondered how such people can sleep at night, Mistakes Were Made supplies some intriguing and useful insights…Reading it, we recognize the behavior of our leaders, our loved ones, and–if we’re honest–ourselves.” -Francis Prose

6. Fooled by Randomness by Nassim Nicholas Taleb

Confusing correlation with causation is a common source of ill-advised decision making, leading us to make important decisions based on a false interpretation of data. By explaining the “hidden role of chance,” Taleb encourages readers to consider the possibility of randomness in attempting to connect the dots of life’s everyday events.

From chapters that credit hazing with creating a strong brotherhood (rather than the shared positive experiences) to the recruitment chairman who mistakenly concludes that parties produced a record candidate class (ignoring a campus-wide increase), Fooled by Randomness holds insightful parallels for fraternity leaders.

7. The Inner Game of Tennis by W. Timothy Gallwey

What could tennis possibly have to do with student leadership? This sports psychology classic was written to help players improve their tennis swing, but each lesson begs a parallel to leadership. From creating self-awareness by filming and watching your own swing (evaluating your chapter’s progress) to creating a vision of your ideal shot (strategic planning and visionary leadership), The Inner Game of Tennis teaches leaders to watch for advice from unexpected sources.

BONUS: The Story of Sigma Nu by John C. Scott (Purdue)

The story of three men who challenged the status quo.

Where Good Ideas Come From

Two new books seek to explain environments that are most ripe for good ideas.  From  a recent Wired magazine interview:

Steven Johnson: We share a fascination with the long history of simultaneous invention: cases where several people come up with the same idea at almost exactly the same time. Calculus, the electrical battery, the telephone, the steam engine, the radio—all these groundbreaking innovations were hit upon by multiple inventors working in parallel with no knowledge of one another.

Could we add the college fraternity to this list?  Think the Lexington and Miami Triads, the other Virginia fraternities, and the Longwood sororities that were all founded around the same time.

Johnson: At the end of my book, I try to look at that phenomenon systematically. I took roughly 200 crucial innovations from the post-Gutenberg era and figured out how many of them came from individual entrepreneurs or private companies and how many from collaborative networks working outside the market. It turns out that the lone genius entrepreneur has always been a rarity—there’s far more innovation coming out of open, nonmarket networks than we tend to assume.

Good things happen when fraternities collaborate and learn from each other.  Even better things can happen when we study non-Greek organizations and draw our own creative parallels.

 

 

Hazing thrives on indifference and inaction

C.S. Lewis presciently explains the insidious allure of belonging to a group:

To nine out of ten of you the choice which could lead to scoundrelism will come, when it does come, in no very dramatic colors.  Obviously bad men, obviously threatening or bribing, will almost certainly not appear.  Over a drink or a cup of coffee, disguised as a triviality and sandwiched between two jokes, from the lips of a man, or woman, whom you have recently been getting to know rather better and whom you hope to know better still–just at the moment when you are most anxious not to appear crude, or naive or a prig–the hint will come.  It will be the hint of something, which is not quite in accordance with the technical rules of fair play, something that the public, the ignorant, romantic public, would never understand.  Something which even the outsiders in your own profession are apt to make a fuss about, but something, says your new friend, which “we”–and the word “we” you try not to blush for mere pleasure–something “we always do.”  And you will be drawn in, if you are drawn in, not by desire for gain or ease, but simply because at that moment, when the cup was so near your lips, you cannot bear to be thrust back again into the cold outer world.  It would be so terrible so see the other man’s face–that genial, confidential, delightfully sophisticated face–turn suddenly cold and contemptuous, to know that you had been tried for the Inner Ring and rejected. And then, if you are drawn in, next week it will be something a little further from the rules, and next year something further still, but all in the jolliest, friendliest spirit.  It may end in a crash, a scandal, and penal servitude; it may end in millions, a peerage and giving the prizes at your old school.  But you will be a scoundrel.

-C.S. Lewis, The Inner Ring

Changing Negative Traditions: A Lesson From West Point

Tradition is the essence of fraternity.  But all too often members take advantage of our instinctive love for tradition to justify actions that contradict our founding principles.  What’s worse, when something becomes tradition–even a negative tradition–it doesn’t change easily.

Once again, Major General Joseph P. Franklin, former commandant of cadets at West Point, offers insight in his book Building Leaders The West Point Way: Ten Principles From The Nation’s Most Powerful Leadership Lab:

I should point out that plebe summer has changed over time.  While it stresses and tests even the most capable of cadets, it is, thankfully, far from the degrading experience that it was in the early part of the twentieth century.  When General MacArthur became superintendent at West Point in 1919, he viewed the summer session as an opportunity to train young people properly, rather than just wear them down until they could no longer function.  This latter practice, which had actually resulted in death of one cadet several years before, had lasted many decades and become entrenched as tradition, giving it something of an untouchable status.

The changes MacArthur implemented from the top speak volumes to the maturity and courage of Sigma Nu’s founders.  Hopkins, Riley and Quarles had enough foresight to recognize dishonorable behavior disguised as tradition when they saw it.  But what could only be accomplished at West Point by a venerable military leader, MacArthur, was attempted by our founders as mere cadets (and five decades earlier!).

MacArthur’s prescient changes also parallel  Sigma Nu’s transition from “pledging” to “candidate education” over the past few decades.  The pejorative “pledging” over time became associated with personal servitude, arbitrary discipline and often a source of entertainment for current members–none of which have anything to do with Sigma Nu’s mission.  “Candidate education,” on the other hand, is the true purpose of Sigma Nu put into practice.

In retrospect it’s not hard to understand how such practices came into being, but it’s not easy to change them once ingrained.  A lot of behavior and training techniques prior to MacArthur’s arrival had been sophomoric at best and brutal, even fatal, at worst.  Suffice it to say that things changed dramatically under MacArthur.  He implemented a system in which plebe summer represented a training opportunity not only for new cadets but also for the senior cadets who were in charge of the new cadets in Beast Barracks.  Not surprisingly, MacArthur’s reforms were resisted by many, cadets and officers alike, and he left the Academy with, in his view, the job unfinished.

Sound familiar?  It takes time to implement big changes.  Leaders who take a stand now may never see the positive impact of their actions.  But don’t be discouraged, as courageous actions will inspire others to follow.  It calls to mind the famous Jonathan Swift quote, “When a genius appears in this world you may know him by this sign, that all of the dunces are in confederacy against him.”

Franklin concludes the chapter with this timeless advice:

While mission statements and philosophical musings are all well and good, it’s crucial that we, as leaders, never cease to critically examine our behavior in the context of the principles we value as leaders.

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Building Leaders the West Point Way

This excerpt from Building Leaders The West Point Way by Major General Joseph P. Franklin complements nicely a previous post on changing organizational culture by surrounding  yourself with the right people:

I learned a real lesson in corporate leadership, which boils down to this simple piece of advice: you have to surround yourself with good people who know what they’re doing and feel comfortable being totally honest with you.

I highly recommend reading the entire book because it debunks the widely held belief that military school leaders advise or condone hazing and other forms of arbitrary discipline as a way to “build brotherhood” and genuine relationships.

The discipline which makes the soldiers of a free country reliable in battle is not to be gained by harsh or tyrannical treatment.  On the contrary, such treatment is far more likely to destroy than to make an army.

The one mode or the other of dealing with subordinates springs from a corresponding spirit in the breast of the commander.  He who feels the respect which is due to others cannot fail to inspire in them respect for himself, while he who feels, and hence manifests, disrespect towards others, especially his inferiors, cannot fail to inspire hatred against himself.

The brother who spends the most time bossing around new members is almost always the least-respected brother in the chapter.  If you want to earn the respect of younger members, show them how an exemplary brother acts.

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The Purpose of Ritual

Are your chapter’s Ritual ceremonies a mindless recitation of arbitrary words or a meaningful reaffirmation of Sigma Nu’s founding purpose?

From Language in Thought in Action, by S.I. Hayakawa and Alan R. Hayakawa:

Sermons, political caucuses, conventions, pep rallies, and other ceremonial gatherings illustrate the fact that all groups–religious, political, patriotic, scientific, and occupational–like to gather together at intervals for the purpose of sharing certain accustomed activities.

Among these ritual activities is always included a number of speeches, either traditionally worded or specifically composed for the occasion, whose principal function is not to give the audience new information, not to create new ways of feeling, but something else altogether.

The authors expand on this thought using the great American tradition of college pep rallies:

The members of “our team” are “introduced” to a crowd that already knows them.  Called upon to make speeches, the players mutter a few incoherent and often ungrammatical remarks, which are received with wild applause.  The leaders of the rally make fantastic promises about the mayhem to be performed on the opposing team the next day.  The crowd utters “cheers,” which normally consist of animalistic noises arranged in extremely primitive rhythms.  No one comes out any wiser or better informed than before.

…we cannot help observing that, whatever the words used in ritual utterance may signifiy, we often do not think very much about their signification during the course of the ritual.

We cannot regard such utterances as meaningless, because they have a genuine effect upon us.

What is the good that is done us in ritual utterances?  It is the reaffirmation of social cohesion.  Societies are held together by such bonds of common reactions to sets of linguistic stimuli.

Ritualistic utterances, therefore, whether made up of words that had symbolic significance at other times, of words in foreign or obsolete tongues, or of other meaningless syllables, may be regarded as consisting in large part of presymbolic uses of languages: that is, accustomed sets of noises which convey no information, but to which feelings (in this case, group feelings) are attached.  Such utterances rarely make sense to anyone not a member of the group.  The abracadabra of a lodge meeting is absurd to anyone not a member of the lodge.  When language becomes ritual, its effect becomes, to a considerable extent, independent of whatever significance the words possessed.

These observations, while insightful, do not describe the fraternity ritual.  The authors may describe the ritual as it is currently used by some chapters but certainly not as it should be used.

The authors do, however, help us acknowledge the reality that when many organizations perform ritual ceremonies they are merely ‘going through the motions’ rather than communicating meaningful ideas–in our case a reminder of Sigma Nu’s founding purpose.  In his timeless essay The Secret Thoughts of a Ritual, Edward M. King explains the purpose of fraternity ritual much more eloquently:

After being up almost all day and all night for a week, I am taken to a dimly lighted room where a number of people are gathered. There I am presented with much feeling and serious drama. It is obviously a moment of great climax for some of the people, for they are seeing and hearing me for the very first time. Shortly after the ceremony, I am brought back to the dark room and placed in the locked file drawer and I am not seen or heard of until the end of the next semester. In this case, as a ritual, what am I? Well, as I see it, I am a perfunctory service that must be performed in order to get new members into an organization. Once the initiation is over, I’m pretty much pigeonholed until the next class is to be initiated.

However, in some fraternity houses I exist in quite a different fashion. Shortly after the initiation the brothers come in one by one, get me out of the drawer and look me over carefully. Some just like to read me, others try to memorize me. Whatever the case, I like it when they use me. Sometimes they even argue over me, and this gets exciting because you see that’s what I’m about. I’m meant to be read carefully, discussed and even argued about. Yes, in fact, I can even be changed. I’m really a very human document, one that was written down some time ago after a great deal of thought of one or two men and I have been reworded, rephrased and re-evaluated many, many times.

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Why Good People Make Bad Decisions

I’m currently re-reading The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil by Philip Zimbardo. I’m still amazed with how relevant the book’s message can be to group culture and specifically fraternity and sorority life. Here are some excerpts from the introduction:

The Lucifer Effect is my attempt to understand the process of transformation at work when good or ordinary people do bad or evil things. We will deal with the fundamental question “What makes people go wrong?” But instead of resorting to a traditional religious dualism of good versus evil, of wholesome nature versus corrupting nurture, we will look at real people engaged in life’s daily tasks, enmeshed in doing their jobs, surviving within an often turbulent crucible of human nature. We will seek to understand the nature of their character transformations when they are faced with powerful situational forces.

When I first read the book, I was initially turned off by what I mistakenly thought was the author’s dismissal of personal responsibility. I falsely thought (before finishing the book) Zimbardo’s conclusion was that humans should not be held responsible for bad or evil behavior because we are only products of our group’s culture. But Zimbardo cleared up this misconception just a few pages into the book:

Throughout this book, I repeat the mantra that attempting to understand the situational and systemic contributions to any individual’s behavior does not excuse the person or absolve him of her from responsibility in engaging in immoral, illegal, or evil deeds.

And Zimbardo explains here how he concludes the book on a positive note, with a discussion of heroes:

We have come to think of our heroes as special, set apart from us ordinary mortals by their daring deeds of lifelong sacrifices. Here we recognize that such special individuals do exist, but that they are the exception among the ranks of heroes, the few who make such sacrifices. They are a special breed who organize their lives around a humanitarian cause, for example. By contrast, most others we recognize as heroes are heroes of the moment, of the situation, who act decisively when the call to service is sounded. So, The Lucifer Effect journey ends on a positive note by celebrating the ordinary hero who lives within each of us.

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