Friday, 14 April 2017

But it's tradition

I love Australian Rules football, and at the time of writing this, my beloved Adelaide Crows are undefeated on top of the AFL ladder. Today for the first time ever, there will be a game of AFL football held on Good Friday. I listen to a fair bit of talk-back radio, and every year during the weeks leading up to Easter, the same conversation ensues. “Should we hold football matches on Good Friday?” Well, it is now happening, and the debate has ramped up. Many of those in the “no” camp constantly use one word to describe their opposition… TRADITION.

Followers of this code will know that no other sporting code in the world has constantly fiddled with its rules as much as the AFL. Every year there are new rules and new interpretations to those rules, many of which leave players, umpires and fans completely bamboozled. Many of the game’s traditional elements are slowly disappearing.

The bounce, for example – the method by which umpires start play (or re-start after a stalemate), has been largely replaced by throwing the ball up. Bouncing an oblong (apparently the correct term is prolate spheroid) shaped ball straight up into the air to give opposing rucks an equal opportunity is a very difficult skill – especially if the ground is wet or muddy. By using this method, the ball can often fly off at angles, giving one team a considerable advantage. Nowadays the bounce is only used rarely and the ball is thrown up. Many lament this disappearing tradition of our game, but most realise it produces a fairer outcome. It’s quite likely the bounce will soon disappear forever.

Hang on – this is meant to be a Rotary blog. Well, I actually think that the slow disappearance of the bounce in Australian Rules Football has close parallels to some of our Rotary traditions. There are many things we do as Rotarians, particularly in meetings, which really serve no practical purpose. They are just tradition. How was it decided over 100 years ago that the best way to start/restart play was to bounce an oddly shaped ball? Who knows – but it stuck. How was it decided over 100 years ago that Rotary club presidents wore blingy collars around their necks? How was it decided that a sergeant would tell dodgy jokes and collect fines from members? How was it decided that we would hold our glasses in the air and “toast” someone or something? Singing, praying, the ringing of bells? What was going on in society way back then that made these rituals so important? Well, I wasn’t there, and I don’t know, but the bigger question is, why are they still observed today?

I guess there’s a certain romance and nostalgia to tradition. When something is considered best practice, it’s quite reasonable that it be passed on to the next generation. But I don’t see best practice in any of these things. I suppose they all seemed like a good idea at the time. My personal Rotary journey has been one of massive change. From joining the ranks out of Rotaract in 1997, where I viewed Rotary as a more grown-up, serious version of Rotaract, and would dare not question club practices, I found myself growing into more senior positions in the club. Eventually I served as Rotary Club of Edwardstown president in 2006/07, and suddenly I had quite a bit of influence within the club. It was around that time that I started to question our traditions, and not long after led somewhat of a revolt against them. We soon dropped many of the Rotary rituals, starting with the singing of the National Anthem, then the toasts, and eventually the Rotary Grace disappeared as well. None without a struggle mind you. I don’t seriously think any of those things were missed. Then I joined the Rotary Club of Seaford when it chartered last November, where I now experience Rotary without a sergeant, weekly meetings, compulsory meals, regular guest speakers, bells, banners, collars, collection boxes, and many other things that had been part of my Rotary experience for 19 years.

And guess what? I feel my current Rotary experience is as active and productive as it has ever been - maybe more so. We are helping our local and international communities, we are sending young people to Rotary leadership events, we are building a network of community leaders, we are training our members, we are working hard to raise funds for future projects. Most importantly, we are growing. We are doing all that stuff that I feel is really important in Rotary, but we aren’t being held back by all the things that aren’t.

And that’s where I draw a line on traditions. It’s not just that many of our traditions no longer serve a useful purpose, it’s that they are holding us back. To many potential members, they are relics of a bygone era. They remind them of things their grandparents used to do.

One of my favourite authors and Rotary commentators Michael McQueen says in his book Winning the Battle for Relevance:
The longer a boat is in water, the more barnacles build up over time to the point where they can significantly reduce a boat’s speed, agility and efficiency. In order to combat this, boats must have their hulls scraped on a regular basis. In an organisational context, it is critical that leaders routinely and consciously scrape off traditions and rituals that have become encrusted like barnacles.

To be honest, I’m somewhat ambivalent about Good Friday football. I can see why many want it, and I can also empathise with those who feel that the day should be left alone. The bounce however, which is not only unpredictable, but responsible for chronic shoulder and back injuries to umpires, has no compelling reason other than “tradition” to remain.

I encourage you all to look at those things you do in Rotary. If there are better ways, we must find them. Happy Easter and Go the Crows!