Friday, December 4, 2009

sacred cows

I was cleaning out my library the other day at home and came across a book I read back in 1995 entitled Sacred Cows Make Gourmet Burgers by William Easum. The book's premise is that churches need to give up the sacred cow of control and "free individuals and teams to make responsible contributions without having to first ask permission." It was from this book that learned the phrase "permission-giving churches" and have continued to use it to describe permission-giving schools and universities. But enough on that specific sacred cow...

What is that creates sacred cows? Or maybe I should begin with describing a sacred cow. Easum writes that Webster's dictionary defines a sacred cow as "one immune from criticism or attack," with the term coming from the Hindu veneration of the cow. In my world, there are less individuals whom I would consider sacred cows and more of "things" - or maybe better yet "the way we do things." For those who are familiar with higher education, the core curriculum is often a sacred cow...or the way promotion in rank is handled...or the way credit is awarded to students...or the way graduation ceremonies are done. I suppose that all organizations (and that would include families) have their sacred cows, but considering the church and higher education (both having been established hundreds of years ago), there are bound to be multiple sacred cows. In my institution, where church and higher education are combined...well, you get the picture.

So what are leaders to do with sacred cows? Should we, as Bill Easum suggests, make gourmet burgers out of them...should we honor them and hold them up as the epitome of what our institutions should be...should we throw them out with the garbage because they have become spoiled...should we attempt to make more and protect ourselves from outside influences? Here is a short list of how one might deal with sacred cows:

  1. develop an atmosphere where people are always asking "why?" This important critical thinking skill will allow for any person, tradition, or way of doing things to be questioned.
  2. include in all meetings a review session of something in your organization, asking the hard questions about it's relevance, excellence, and ability to move the organization forward.
  3. regularly hold a sacred cow audit, bringing into question every program, practice, and person within the organization (begin with yourelf).
  4. become mission driven by asking "how does this help our mission?" with every request and new idea offered.
  5. open yourself up to criticism - when the leader sets the tone for asking the hard questions, other might have an easier time of looking at themselves and their personal programs.
  6. if something isn't working, fix it or get rid of it...that would include people as well as programs.
  7. read widely and investigate new ideas...if we keep doing the same thing over and over, pretty soon it becomes all we know and believe it to be the best - be looking for NEW ways to do things.
  8. act as an outsider by taking some time to consider what your institution and its practices might look like to someone who is not familiar with the organization - and be brutally honest.

As you have been considering the sacred cows hanging out around your organization while reading this blog, the next question is..."what are you going to do about them?" Sometimes just bringing them to light and having everyone agree that "yes, that is one of our sacred cows" can begin the process of change. I hope you are looking forward to your next meal of gourmet burgers and fries!

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