Category Archives: Honor

Fixing a Toxic Culture

The resignation letter from a former Goldman Sachs executive, published today in the New York Times, has been making the rounds on Facebook and Twitter this morning. As former executive Greg Smith walks readers through the reasons for his resignation, he touches on a number of lessons surrounding group culture and ethical leadership – two subjects that couldn’t be more relevant for fraternity life.

Smith wastes no time in identifying a lack of leadership as the culprit for Goldman Sachs’ increasingly negative work culture.

How did we get here? The firm changed the way it thought about leadership. Leadership used to be about ideas, setting an example and doing the right thing. Today, if you make enough money for the firm (and are not currently an ax murderer) you will be promoted into a position of influence.

It’s hard to say where profit fits into an analogy between a business and a student organization. As you read on, know that Smith’s letter is not an indictment of profit-seeking per se, but rather a lesson in what happens when an organization strays from its core purpose.

These days, the most common question I get from junior analysts about derivatives is, “How much money did we make off the client?” It bothers me every time I hear it, because it is a clear reflection of what they are observing from their leaders about the way they should behave. Now project 10 years into the future: You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to figure out that the junior analyst sitting quietly in the corner of the room hearing about “muppets,” “ripping eyeballs out” and “getting paid” doesn’t exactly turn into a model citizen.

For better or worse, the fastest way to change the culture of a group is the behavior of the leadership. As Smith witnessed, younger employees would observe and later mimic the insidious behavior of the senior analysts. Sure enough, new members are likely to take cues from older members, particularly the leadership. When upperclassmen abuse alcohol, act irresponsibly, and otherwise neglect their duties, the new members will undoubtedly do the same.

Smith closes with some advice for the remaining Goldman Sachs executives – people with the ability to reshape the company’s culture.

Weed out the morally bankrupt people, no matter how much money they make for the firm. And get the culture right again, so people want to work here for the right reasons.

It’s not easy to tell a peer, one who might even be a good friend, that he can’t be in the fraternity anymore. But that’s what being in a fraternity founded on the Honor principle is all about – self-governance and peer-accountability. That aside, a chapter that lacks the fortitude to remove members who contribute to a toxic culture will not be around for very long.

//Nathaniel Clarkson (James Madison)

Forget hugs, I need a handshake

By Associate Director of Leadership Development Alex Combs

The handshake.  It’s pretty remarkable how a simple gesture can convey such a powerful message.  Indeed, a true testament to the importance of non-verbal communication.  We use the handshake to greet, say farewell, congratulate, even size-up our fellow man.  But do we use it enough in our work together?  I was struck by this thought while reading an article in Harvard Business Review exploring that very concept.

Today’s business world is teeming with contracts.  Unsurprisingly, the same applies to Greek life, as well.  We are infatuated with laying out every expectation and rule for our undergraduates and creating contingency plans for the unexpected, down to every foreseeable detail.  Amidst terms & conditions clauses, insurance affidavits, recognition agreements, accreditation programs, and the like, we must admit there is little room left to the free-will of undergraduates, whether that be of an insidious or altruistic nature.

Granted, many of us believe these to be necessary evils to a system fraught with liability and engulfed by insurance policy, perhaps accurately so.  But is it ever considered that the very contracts we use to preserve our working relationships might be doing more to decay them, instead?  Maybe then we wouldn’t be so quick to believe these as necessary.

The point – an agreement over a handshake can set the general guidelines to a relationship, while leaving room for common sense and goodwill to govern actions when those unexpected or unforeseen circumstances arise.  However, with contracts, they set out to explicitly define what could otherwise be governed by social norms, removing our responsibility to adhere to common sense and instead obsess over the details of the contract.  Therefore, anything not stated in the contract is free game.

It’s simply paradoxical that the more we try to define expectations, the more we leave unsaid.  The more specific I state my parameters, the more parameters I’m forced to specify.  This can go on to a seemingly limitless degree, much to the detriment of not only our relationships – being based more on distrust than trust – but also our performance.

In the article, a CEO describes one of the worst decisions of his career.  He set out to develop a detailed performance evaluation that would guide decisions on raises, bonuses, and benefits.  He thought it would increase transparency and understanding of the ideal performance.  He was wrong.  Instead, his employees only cared about meeting those terms, regardless of whether or not it was to the benefit of coworkers or the company.  Ultimately, morale and overall performance tanked.

Perhaps that is why honor codes are often so simplistic.  It sounds like something you would agree to over a handshake.  I must admit, having managed many students and consulted many chapters, I’ve expected a lot of things from many people.  But I’m never more confident about those expectations being met as I am when I can look that person in the eyes and say, “I’m counting on you to do the right thing.” Then we follow that with a handshake.

Source:  Ariely, D. (2011, March). In Praise of The Handshake.  Harvard Business Review, 40.

The honor system crumbles without peer accountability

In today’s Wall Street Journal writer William McGurn discusses the recent allegations at Miami through the lens of honor systems. Here are a few key paragraphs:

Our military academies are not filled with moral paragons. Like their peers, their student bodies are populated with young Americans in their late teens. They are every bit as human, and an honor code has never been a guarantee against scandal. From the huge 1951 cheating scandal at West Point that saw more than 80 cadets expelled (including nearly half the football team) to more recent scandals at Navy and Air Force, the academies have had their share.

The difference is they don’t delegate to the NCAA the idea of right and wrong, and they take community seriously. On these campuses, no man is an island. The message is: You are all in it together.

The parallel for fraternities is clear: any chapter is capable of making a mistake and getting in trouble. The difference between mediocre chapters and excellent chapters is how they respond.

Failing chapters circle the wagons, shift blame and look the other way when peers abandon their values. Excellent chapters acknowledge the misstep and hold their own members accountable rather than waiting for some higher authority to take action.

The ingredients of Miami’s vices—the nightclubs, the prostitutes, the yachts—make it far juicier than the typical pay-for-play. The scandal here is not that teenage football players behave badly when a wealthy benefactor indulges their every appetite. The scandal is what it says about the impoverished sense of community on our college and university campuses, and the fecklessness of those who know better.

The cover story for upcoming fall issue of The Delta takes an in-depth look at traditional honor systems, including one of the institutions mentioned in this article. As we’ll see, peer accountability combined with a culture of trust is the essence of the honor system. As the only fraternity founded on the honor principle, Sigma Nu chapters must show their communities that self-governance works.

Applying the honor system in Japan

As noted in a post from yesterday, we’ve been exploring some group cultures that self-govern with built-in honor systems. Yesterday’s post mentioned the important role honor plays in golf where players self-report rule violations and some courses collect green fees using an “honor box.”

The Japanese response to the recent earthquake and tsunami presents another example of applying the honor system in practice. During coverage of the aftermath, viewers around the world were surprised to discover a lack of looting in the devastated areas, and commentators were quick to identify the reason:

“There’s a general sense of social responsibility that’s very fundamental to Japan. Part of that is self-regulation on the part of individuals, part of it is a society in which people are very conscious of their reputations in the eyes of their neighbors and colleagues,” Swenson-Wright told AOL News today. “They’re reluctant to do anything that would invite criticism.”

Another factor is Japanese people’s deep-rooted sense of honor, embodied in the words today of their emperor, who rarely speaks publicly and stays out of politics.

Use the comments section below to share other examples of cultures/groups that operate under an honor system of sorts.

Golf and the honor system

We’ve been preparing a story for the fall issue of the magazine that will discuss the honor system as it exists at VMI and in Sigma Nu. The story will include examples of cultures and subcultures that operate with a system of trust and peer accountability, just as the honor system operates within VMI, Sigma Nu, and a select number of other schools with strong systems of self-governance.

One of the classical examples of a functioning honor system comes from the game of golf. Here are some excerpts from two recent stories on the subject, one from The New York Times and the other from ESPN.

On a golf course in Scotland that employs an “honor box”:

One tradition is unlikely to be altered. A small sign on the outside of the clubhouse reads “Pay Green Fees Here.” Below the sign is a metal slot, where golfers drop envelopes with their money. The course is run on the honor system, with no attendant in sight.

“The system works well because it reflects the traditions within golf of honesty and integrity,” said Hamish Grey, the chief executive of the Scottish Golf Union, which oversees the men’s amateur game here.

And ESPN on a famous case from the 1925 U.S. Open:

More than 80 years after Bobby Jones’ ball barely budged, the story is still told to show golf is a game of honor. The great amateur was competing in the 1925 U. S. Open when, unbeknownst to anyone but himself, Jones’ ball moved ever so slightly as he addressed it in the rough.

There were no referees to call a foul, no officials to slap him with a penalty. Jones’ playing companion, Walter Hagen, didn’t see the infraction, nor did his caddie or any spectators. The tournament title hung in the balance, but when the round was completed, it soon became known that Jones had assessed himself a 1-stroke penalty.

The ball moving did not help him any, nor was it any great violation. But it happened, and those are the rules. So Jones thought nothing of it. That stroke cost him outright victory, and he then went on to lose a 36-hole playoff to Willie Macfarlane.

Jones was asked about his decision by a reporter after the round. His response? “You might as well praise me for not robbing banks.”

Read the full story here.

If you know of any other groups or subcultures that live by a system of mutual trust and accountability, share them with us in the comments section below.

 

Fraternal Musings on the Fourth of July

By Don Densborn (Indiana)

“And for the support of this Fraternity, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.”

It is the 4th of July, so in accord with the tradition to which we all subscribe as Americans, I am re-reading the Declaration of Independence.

Why are you laughing?  We all do it, right?

OK, admittedly reading the Declaration on the 4th is a bit odd.  I am a traditionalist at a time when a lot of tradition seems to be tweeted to the winds.

I attribute my odd practice to the fact, when I was in high school, I was required to memorize the preamble to the Declaration of Independence.  I became addicted to great words conveying great ideas.  Who would not recognize the timeless words, “When in the Course of human events..,” and “We hold these truths to be self-evident…”  Ol’ Tom Jefferson sure knew how to coin a phrase for the ages.  He knew his words would be etched into history.  He understood his audience would include future generations he would never know.  Thus he took great care.

I believe a lot of people think Jefferson’s preamble to the Declaration is the entire instrument—far from it.  There was a committee that helped Jefferson, and the work of that committee included a comprehensive list of grievances against the “King of Great Britain” intended that the Colonies be “Absolved from all Allegiance to the British Crown,” culminating with the following:

“And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.”

Reading these closing words this time, I was given to substitute “Fraternity” for “Declaration” in the first phrase.  The preface to this writing was thusly “borrowed” shall we say—borrowed, but not without basis.

For much like our beloved country, our fraternity firmly relies on the “protection of divine Providence.”  The earthly Knights—or Swiss Guards—of our protectorate are our staff in Lexington and elsewhere, led by Brad Beacham and Brad Hastings.  They are young, honorable, talented men who have dedicated their lives and worldly pursuits to a set of common ideals over personal fortune.  They personify the Life of Love and should inspire our gratitude and respect.

“We mutually pledge”—we all mutually pledged loyalty to Sigma Nu and our Knightly vows.  To “pledge” means to make a “solemn promise.”  By their Declaration, our founding fathers made their solemn promise to one another and to a set of common beliefs.  They did so in anticipation of great toil and grief—possibly death.  As members of the Legion of Honor, we similarly vowed, whatever the sacrifice, to serve each other and society according to a set of ideals and a common purpose we deem most high.  According to our Creed, “in the fresh morning of our youth,” we subscribed to the “common brotherhood” of men, the “continuity of the Divine” and the “solidarity of mankind.”

What’s more:

“Our lives”—we pledged to believe in the Life of Love for until death.

“Our fortunes”—we pledged to lend a “Helping Hand” and do all we can to ensure the perpetuation of our fraternal ideals throughout the world, forever.

“Our sacred honor”—quite simply, ours is the Honor Fraternity.  It is our raison d’etre.

You get the picture.  As an analogy, it is nearly perfect.  Some 94 years after the Declaration of Independence, our founding ideals were set to align with it, and 142 years hence from that date, Sigma Nu soldiers on under the same indelible banner.  You can’t tweet that away.

With this in mind, I read the results of a poll which were published recently in the Wall Street Journal.  The question posed was:  “Are you happy?”  Nearly 60 percent of respondents said they were “Pretty Happy,” and another 30 percent said they were “Very Happy.”  In a time of political tumult and a dreadful economy, it is interesting to witness that our level of happiness is not dictated much by politics or the economy.  That’s quite telling.

Perhaps, despite all angst of the moment, we take long measure of our blessings when presented with such a question.  If one is blessed by a loving spouse, wonderful children, good health—and has not missed a meal lately—how can he not be happy in the overall scheme of things?  Or maybe happiness has to do with loyal friends, fulfilling work, financial security, the beauty of nature, the wonders of human achievement, the blessings of liberty, the rewards of an honorable life well-lived, and/or a loving and forgiving God?  Quite simply, we live in the greatest place in the world and the greatest time in history. We have a lot to be thankful for, and we know it.  On that basis alone, how could any witting man not experience happiness, at least in a relative sense?

Relative happiness, sure, but what’s more?  I would answer that “What’s more?” is the complete joy that comes from giving—giving behind the ideals in which you believe—giving in support of the institutions of goodness in the world—giving to perpetuate the type of relationships which helped mold you into a man and shape you for the better—in short, giving to ensure that the world you will leave behind one day will be better than the one you inherited.

My guess is that when a member of our Brotherhood reflects on the influences in his life that shaped his sacred honor, fostered his life success, and rendered him, at the end of the day, happy, he will find Sigma Nu prominent among them.

Quite simply, we are blessed to be part of the greatest fraternity in the world.  Sigma Nu deserves another 140 years and beyond, but she needs our financial support.  There is a line in the movie “True Grit” to the effect that there is nothing free in the world except the grace of God.  I believe that also free is the will of man. We are free to put our lives, our fortunes and our sacred honor behind that which we believe…the Life of Love, the Way of Honor, and the Light of Truth.

Thus, I pray that, for the sheer joy you will experience today—and for the benefit of generations of tomorrow you will never know—you take time this Independence Day to pledge an appropriate measure of your fortune in support of the great ideals and work of our beloved Fraternity.  It will be etched in history if you do.

Br. Densborn is a past Regent and longtime volunteer for the Fraternity.

Self-governance in Action at Boise State

Every two years Sigma Nus from across the country convene at Grand Chapter–the supreme governing body of the Fraternity–where collegiate and alumni delegates vote on changes to The Law and elect new national leadership, among other matters.

As every Sigma Nu should know, the votes at Grand Chapter are overwhelmingly controlled by the collegians. This means that no bylaw is passed and no leader is elected without the collective approval of the undergraduate members.

It was established from the beginning that the General Fraternity would regard undergraduate chapters as self-governing entities; this is the essence of the Honor system.

Even the best chapters make mistakes on occasion. With sound chapter operations, these groups are prepared to handle their own problems, whether it be through a local honor court or a more formal Trial Court. Excellent chapters are willing to discipline their own members.

The High Council (Sigma Nu’s elected board of directors) and the General Fraternity are obligated to take action only when a chapter is so operationally dysfunctional that it’s incapable of holding its own members accountable.

Boise State’s response to the recent NCAA allegations serves as a positive example in self-governance. After multiple NCAA violations surfaced at Boise State this spring, school officials were quick to take action and self-impose sanctions:

Boise State has self-imposed sanctions on its football program as it faces NCAA allegations charging the school’s athletic program with a lack of institutional control.

We pride ourselves on doing things the right way at Boise State. As soon as we became aware that these inadvertent infractions were not in accordance with NCAA rules, we acted swiftly and without hesitation,” football coach Chris Petersen said Monday in a statement released by the school.

“The university, our staff and the involved student-athletes worked together with the NCAA to resolve the situation, including reimbursement of the benefits received, and that money was donated to a local charity,” Petersen said.

After being notified by the NCAA of the potential violations, Boise State officials launched their own inquiry in 2009 and ultimately self-reported some previously unknown infractions. But before a resolution could be reached with the NCAA, Boise State officials discovered more serious problems in the women’s tennis program last fall.

If your chapter slips up, how will your leadership react? Exercise self-governance and acknowledge the mistake, take appropriate action and move on?

Or deny all wrongdoing, orchestrate a cover-up and let the problem worsen?

There are too many stories of now dormant chapters that chose the latter.

How Did You Live the Ritual Today?

By Leadership Consultant Daniel Hallgren

What did you do today to live your Ritual?

Rereading The Secret Thoughts of a Ritual prompted me to consider how I live the Ritual each day. It is a thought provoking piece that talks about how Ritual should not be so secret that it becomes a mystery to us and our members.

The Ritual should be read, studied, and used as a road map to live a good life.

It should be openly discussed between brothers and taught to our new members once they are initiated.

The meanings of The Ritual should be examined closely and argued passionately.

I encourage you to read both The Ritual and  The Secret Thoughts of a Ritual, and to reflect on their teachings and meaning.

Or to share a passage from each at an upcoming chapter meeting, discussing its current relevance with the membership.

As I write this, I am reflecting on how I am currently living and doing what The Ritual prescribes.

Am I living up to the Oath I made five years ago when I became an initiated brother in Sigma Nu?

Am I living the values and precepts set forth by my founders?

I challenge you to ask these very same questions of yourself and others.

It is only upon reflection and discussion that we can reach an understanding of The Ritual and how well each of us lives up to our knightly vows.

I challenge you to consider where you stand and to help others do the same.

Once you have learned The Ritual, taught it to others, and lived by it, I challenge you to expect the same from our brothers.

Your Initiation Ceremony is Only the Beginning

By Drew Logsdon (Western Kentucky)

This was it. Twelve long weeks had culminated into this exact moment. I had passed the tests. I knew the history. I was familiar with risk reduction, time management, community service, and leadership concepts. I was also still very naïve.

I knew I was about to go through a ritual that had been passed down through the years but I didn’t really understand the significance of the event until much later.

I remember that morning very distinctly. My candidate brothers and I were waiting with strong anticipation for this moment. However, internally, I was thinking of so much more.

I was about to become a member of not just a chapter with over 40 years of history on campus but also a fraternity of international membership.

I remembered what my father had told me during a phone conversation the night before. “Don’t waste this experience. Don’t be an empty seat. The easy part is over, now the hard part begins. You have nothing to prove to anyone else but you do have something to prove to yourself. Prove to yourself that this commitment wasn’t a half-assed one. Prove to yourself that you’re going to actually do something.”

Honor candidate ritual robe.

He was absolutely right.

When I finally walked into the room for the ceremony I remember feeling extremely excited. So excited I wanted to almost skip the ceremony and go straight to my first meeting. That’s when it dawned on me: This wasn’t the culmination of twelve weeks. This was the beginning of change. I now had a voice. I now had an obligation. There were no more “but I’m just a candidate” excuses. Now I had an obligation to stand for the values of the Fraternity. When the door shut behind us I felt the weight of the silence in the room. In roughly one hour I would be an initiate.

To this day I can’t accurately recreate in my memory what followed because it seemed to happen so fast (it didn’t). But I will never forget those first few moments and my father’s words to me the night before. I believe it is a charge we are all obligated to uphold.

As initiates we have nothing to prove to anyone else, but we do have to prove something to ourselves.

We all have to prove that we will carry through with the vows we took. We all have to prove that our decisions were not made in vain and that we will all leave our active chapters better than when we came into them.

So throughout this week of celebration for our Ritual I encourage every active member and candidate alike to think about what they have done or plan to do. Don’t be an empty seat. Do something.

The Friend Card

Have you ever experienced a situation where the lines between friend and brother become blurred? Where you let a member slide, which hurts your chapter based on friendship versus being a good brother and holding them to a higher standard?

What do you do when a brother deals you the friend card? Are you really being a good friend by letting them slide?

Is your chapter brother that good of a friend that you will let the chapter suffer for his poor grades or misbehavior? Will you let your chapter suffer financially because he cannot pay his dues and you don’t want to hurt your friendship? Or will you hold him to that higher standard that you agreed to when you joined the fraternity?

If you hold your fellow brother to those standards it may be tough in the short run and some feelings may be hurt, but in the future all parties involved will benefit.

There are times when your brothers may not even be your friends.

Mind your brother so he minds you.

 

Have you ever run into a situation where the lines between friend and brother become blurred? Where you let a member slide, which hurts your chapter based on friendship versus being a good brother and holding them to a higher standard?

 

What do you do when a Brother deals you the friend card? Are you really being a good friend by letting them slide?

 

Is your chapter brother that good of friend that you will let the chapter suffer for his poor grades or misbehavior? Will you let your chapter suffer financially because he cannot pay his dues and you don’t want to hurt your friendship? Or will you hold him to that higher standard that you agreed to when you joined the fraternity?

 

If you hold your fellow brother to those standards it may be tough in the short run and some feelings may be hurt, but in the future all parties involved will benefit.

 

There are times when your brothers may not even be your friends.

 

Mind your brother so he minds you.