Category Archives: ritual

Applying Fraternity Ritual to the Workday

This HBR article was making its way around Greek life Twitter circles last week, and for good reason.

Here’s a snippet:

Religions understand and leverage the power of ritual. In Judaism, blessings are as plentiful as iPhone apps. Wake up? There’s a blessing for that. Wash your hands? There’s a blessing for that. Experience something new? Eat a meal? Go to the bathroom? There’s a blessing for each one. Every religion I know has similar practices to make our experience of the world sacred.

Which might be why we avoid ritual in the business world. Religion is so loaded, so personal. But ritual doesn’t have to be religious; it’s just a tool religions use. Rituals are about paying attention. They’re about stopping for a moment and noticing what you’re about to do, what you’ve just done, or both. They’re about making the most of a particular moment. And that’s something we could use a lot more of in the business world.

Sounds like another Ritual I know of.

Read the full story here.

Random Thoughts

If fraternities are supposed to stand for such values as honor, integrity and respect then why must every national office employ a full-time Director of Risk Reduction?

Why are marketing campaigns to eliminate hazing almost always directed at our our own members rather than the general public?  Isn’t it pathetic that we should have to convince our own members that the mission of our organization is in fact good?

The few chapters that are either too cool or too dysfunctional to attend Grand Chapter will inevitably complain the most about the new bylaws and policies they didn’t bother to vote for.

If chapters are so proud of their diversity, loosely defined, then why do pledge programs insist on making everyone the same (“our #1 goal is to mold a united pledge class”)?

If hazers are so confident that arbitrary harassment builds brotherhood then why not advertise every activity and expectation during recruitment?

And if hazers are so confident that hazing has an ounce of relevance to real life then why don’t they list “endured hazing pledgeship” on their resume?  Or do they understand that no employer would take them seriously?

Why do some chapters spend more time developing marketing campaigns to make themselves look good rather than actually being good in the first place?

Why do chapters spend so much time trying to motivate members for recruitment rather than just recruiting people who don’t need to be motivated?

If hazing is supposed to teach respect then why are the loudest proponents of hazing always the least respected members in the chapter?

Deadheads, Frat Stars and Fraternity Men

The March issue of Atlantic Monthly is running a story on management secrets from the Grateful Dead.  I’m not really a Grateful Dead listener (no particular reason, they just never caught on for me) but, believe it or not, I found a few passages that relate to fraternity life.

What binds us together?

As the band’s following grew, the notion that it might have something to offer scholars, particularly in the social sciences, became somewhat less far-fetched, though still not without professional risk. In the late 1980s, Rebecca G. Adams, a sociologist at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, who studies friendships formed across distances, noticed deep bonds between Deadheads.

Today, everybody is intensely interested in understanding how communities form across distances, because that’s what happens online. Far from being a subject of controversy, Rebecca Adams’s next book on Deadhead sociology has publishers lining up.

Similarly (sort of), Sigma Nus from Orlando to Seattle and L.A. to Boston share deep bonds.  Hazers and true fraternity men agree that brotherhood is about bonding, but bonding around what exactly is where hazers get confused.

In a way, hazers are correct that people can bond together by enduring negative experiences together.  Surviving a natural disaster with your neighbor will surely bring you closer together; however, bonding through negative experiences is a backwards way to create genuine relationships, especially when the situations are created intentionally.

On the other hand, true fraternity brotherhood is built on the foundation of common ideals and positive experiences.  Those who have attended a Grand Chapter and recited the Ritual with hundreds of Sigma Nus from across North America understand what it means to be bonded by common ideals with otherwise complete strangers.

Enduring success relies on innovation

Recently, Barnes has been lecturing to business leaders about strategic improvisation. He’s been a big hit. “People are just so tired of hearing about GE and Southwest Airlines,” he admits. “They get really excited to hear about the Grateful Dead.”

The long-term success for any organization hinges on its ability (and its willingness) to adapt to constantly changing surroundings.  While it’s natural to be skeptical of advice from outsiders, we should also recognize that valuable lessons often come from unlikely sources.

Don’t Drink the Hazing Kool-Aid: Lessons from Jonestown

Jim Jones, Peoples Temple founder

I watched a documentary on Jim Jones and the Peoples Temple last weekend and couldn’t help but relate some of the underlying causes to fraternity life.  No, I’m not suggesting that fraternity life is becoming a socialist utopia turned forced-labor camp; comparing is not equating and few analogies are perfect.  But attempting to understand why 909 people were convinced by a toxic leader to commit mass suicide holds lessons on how groups of good people can make bad decisions.  Here are a few of the parallels:

1.  Total denial of reality

Throughout the documentary members of the Peoples Temple repeatedly claim, “[Jonestown] is heaven on Earth,” or “I’ve never been so happy in my entire life.”  This false sense of reality continued even to the day Jones ordered his followers to inject their children with cyanide-laced kool-aid, just before committing their own suicide.

For some reason student leaders tend to overestimate the current performance of their organization.  I’ve heard too many times, “Everything is going great, couldn’t be better,” from a chapter with lousy grades, low numbers, no campus involvement and multiple hazing investigations.  Identifying and acknowledging a problem is the first step to becoming an excellent chapter.

If personal servitude is the core philosophy of your chapter’s candidate education program but you’ve convinced yourself it’s not hazing (and you tell everyone “we’re a non-hazing chapter”) then you are denying reality.

It’s no coincidence that the All Chapter LEAD Session on Accountability includes “See It” and “Own It” in the four-step model.

2.  The dangers of good intentions

We’ve all heard of the famous road paved with good intentions.  Jim Jones preached about peace, justice, equality and other such virtues during service at the Peoples Temple.  Sounds good, right?  Who wouldn’t be for justice and treating people fairly?  On the surface Jones preached the virtues of the Bible, but it quickly became apparent (evidently not for the church’s members) that he maintained a deeper agenda: absolute control over his followers.

Jones even cajoled members into donating their life savings to the church.  People sold their homes, cashed in their retirement savings, quit their jobs and turned all belongings over to the collective.  In turn, members were provided with food, health care, housing and a community of people for life.

Were members of The Peoples Temple more gullible than the average person?  Did Jim Jones prey upon the poor and undereducated?  Maybe, maybe not.  Either way, the ash heap of history contains countless groups of perfectly sensible people who were duped into bad decisions (or even suicide, in this case) by the allure of good intentions.

Ask any Marshal the goal of his candidate education program and you’re sure to get this answer: “We want the candidates to bond together, learn the history, and prove they’re worthy of initiation.”  Who could argue with that?  We can’t just initiate anyone, right?  Isn’t  a brotherhood supposed to bond?

But what happens when “learning the history” becomes public quizzing sessions of arbitrary yelling?  Or when “proving you’re worthy of initiation” becomes running errands for brothers or completing other arbitrary tasks?  Or when “candidate class bonding” becomes public embarrassment or even worse?  Watch out for the bait-and-switch of good intentions for other hidden agendas.

Hazing is often perpetuated under the guise of good intentions: bonding, building better men and teaching history.  But the new student leader isn’t falling for it any longer.  The emerging student leader recognizes hazing for what is is: a system for deadbeat brothers to gain unearned respect and a source of entertainment for the others.  Deadbeat members should be asked to leave, and those who joined to be entertained should reread their candidate Ritual ceremony.

3. Waiting for disaster to acknowledge the need for change

How many times have we seen a community “come together” in the wake of some tragedy?  Why should it take the preventable death of a student for the Greek life community to put the rivalries aside and support each other?  Why do some chapters only understand the connection between risk reduction guidelines and valid insurance until after tragedy strikes?

Once Jim Jones moved his Peoples Temple from northern California to Jonestown, French Guiana, it should have become clear that something wasn’t right.  But the members continued to deny reality and accepted Jones’ sermons as absolute truths.

Jones became increasingly authoritarian, irrational and hysterical; his sermons shifted from discussions of equality and justice to instilling a constant sense of fear among the members.  The collective utopia started to look more like a forced-labor camp than the promise land.

Other members of The Peoples Temple must have known about the giant stash of cyanide.  Jim Jones even held trial runs of his plans to commit mass suicide.  But no one said anything until it was too late.

Lessons learned?

So what does this extreme example of groupthink and mass delusion have to do with fraternity life?  While we aren’t headed for the mass hysteria that ended in a tragedy like Jonestown, we can recognize that groups of intelligent college men are capable of making bad decisions–albeit on a much smaller scale.

By now you’ve probably realized the origin of the popular phrase, “Don’t drink the Kool-Aid.”  Next time your chapter is coalescing around a bad idea, you be the one to recognize it and do something about it.  Don’t drink the hazing Kool-Aid.

-Nathaniel Clarkson

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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