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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