Book Review: How the Mighty Fall: And Why Some Companies Never Give In
Eve Riley, National Panhellenic Conference
Almost daily, someone questions the ability of fraternities and sororities to remain relevant in the 21st century. Jim Collins' (2002) book Built to Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies provides strong evidence that corporations which remain true to their missions are the ones most likely to succeed. In his most recent book, How the Mighty Fall: And Why Some Companies Never Give In (2009), Collins examines why and how a successful corporation can eventually fail. In the preface, Collins states:
Every institution is vulnerable, no matter how great. No matter how much you've achieved, no matter how far you've gone, no matter how much power you've garnered, you are vulnerable to decline. There is no law of nature that the most powerful will inevitably remain at the top. Anyone can fail and most eventually do (2009, p. 8).
Although Collins' books generally focus on the business community, his key points are relevant to any organization and most definitely to fraternities and sororities. On any campus at least one fraternity/sorority chapter or umbrella council is content to continue doing things the way they have always been done, choosing to ignore signs that it may have slipped away from its stated mission, rituals, and values. Often, neither the chapter membership, their advisor, nor the inter/national organization ever questions that the organization may be on a path to failure.
An easy read, How the Mighty Fall (2009) provides straightforward guidelines for self-examination and evaluation, helpful to any advisor, administrator, volunteer, or inter/national organization staff person striving to ensure chapter and individual member success. Based on research, he presents ways to not only detect and avoid decline, but also to reverse it. Collins (2009) identifies five stages of decline and his markers for each.
Stage 1: Hubris Born of Success
Defined by success supported by entitlement and arrogance, "what" replaces "why," a decline in learning orientation, and discounting the role of luck.
Look for chapters that make excuses for low grade point averages; refuse to change recruiting techniques even though membership is declining; embrace credit for past successes, but assume no responsibility for current failures; claim their rights are being violated when disciplined; and/or never use any means of evaluation.
Stage 2: Undisciplined Pursuit of More
Defined by an unsustainable quest for growth, confusing big with great, undisciplined discontinuous leaps, a declining proportion of the right people in key seats, easy choices are valued more than the right choices, and bureaucracy subverts discipline.
Look for chapters that have no concern for the welfare or size of other groups in their community; can only claim numbers rather than accomplishments; slate officers based on popularity instead of skill; willingly spend huge sums on t-shirts, alcohol, and recruitment; and/or refuse to provide effective means for holding members accountable.
Stage 3: Denial of Risk and Peril
Defined by the amplification of the positive while discounting the negative, big bets and bold goals without empirical validation, taking huge risks based on ambiguous data, erosion of healthy team dynamics, externalizing blame, obsessive reorganization, and imperious detachment.
Look for chapters that refuse to practice good risk management skills; fail to consider consequences of irresponsible behavior; fail to hold members accountable; fail to invest the time and energy to develop personal relationships among chapter members; and/or seldom, if ever, establish relationships with their fraternity/sorority advisor, chapter advisors, or their inter/national organization.
Stage 4: Grasping for Salvation
Defined by the search for a series of silver bullets to repair the organization, grasping for a leader who will serve as a savior; panic and haste, radical change and "revolution" with fanfare that often is not preceded by results, an initial upswing followed by disappointments, confusion and cynicism, chronic restructuring, and erosion of financial strength.
Look for chapters that provide leadership opportunities for only a select few, focus on having the best party of the year, seldom follow through with plans, seldom have a plan, and/or recruit only a few days each year.
Stage 5: Capitulation to Irrelevance or Death
Defined by hopelessness.
Look for chapters that withdraw from the fraternal community and/or refuse to ask for help. Collins (2009, p. 107) states, "By the time a company has moved through stages 1, 2, 3, and 4, those in power can become exhausted, dispirited, and eventually abandon hope. And when you abandon hope you should begin preparing for the end."
A key concept expressed in the book is the importance of ensuring the "right people" are in key seats in order to create change. Collins (2009) provides six characteristics of such people:
- they fit with the community's core values;
- they don't have to be tightly managed;
- they understand that they do not have "jobs", they have responsibilities;
- they fulfill their commitments;
- they are passionate about their community (chapter) and its work; and
- they display "window and mirror" maturity
Collins (2009, p. 160) describes “window and mirror” maturity as such: “When things go well, the right people point out the window, giving credit to factors other than themselves…Yet when things go awry, they do not blame circumstances or other people for setbacks and failures; they point in the mirror and say, "I'm responsible."
Collins stresses other important concepts in the chapters devoted to each stage of decline. He provides two charts of note: One that describes leadership team dynamics, a chart contrasting the dynamics of teams on the way down and those on the way up, and a chart that offers strategies to reverse the downward spiral of Stage 4: Grasping for Salvation.
Understanding the stages of decline and how they can be reversed is critical for all who strive to ensure that our chapters and organizations are indeed relevant and the very best they can be. How the Mighty Fall (2009) is key to understanding that, "A core business that meets a fundamental human need – and one at which you've become the best in the world – rarely becomes obsolete" (p. 32).
Collins, J. (2009). How the mighty fall: And why some companies never give in. New York, NY: HarperCollins.
Collins, J., & Porras, J. (2002). Built to last: Successful habits of visionary companies. New York, NY: Harper Paperback.