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Are our 20 percent most devoted members unwittingly the barrier to growth?

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On a guest night in a past chapter, I was asked to take the guests downstairs and show the “Singing is Life” video. It had been a few years since I’d first seen it as a Society employee. As I watched the faces of the men in the room, I wondered whether we perhaps should have had some outside focus groups look at that script before we committed it to celluloid.

Everybody on that video was the kind of guy we would love to clone and distribute throughout our Society – dedicated, creative, influential, and absolutely wild about the hobby. They couldn’t have been more enthusiastic about barbershop harmony and what it has done for them and their lives. That was the problem with the video. These guests had shown up to see if they wanted to sing with us once a week, and as the video rolled out, their faces looked like they were wondering what kind of all-consuming cult we were pitching. Such reactions don’t occur to us because we think everyone should want to be like these dedicated men. But how many of those can we expect to recruit every year? Is that all-consuming attitude a turn-off to other men who might be inclined to join us — men who might become more dedicated with time, but for now haven’t even decided whether we’re worth any of their time at all?

We joke about the time and energy it takes to run this Society. But I wonder if, because all our leaders are cut from this same excellent cloth, we’re often doing things that unconsciously send an off-putting vibe to the guys who may have a few hours a week to carve out but are not, at least not now, looking to give their their all to our hobby. Are they free to join us? In this particular chapter, the answer was an intentional “no” — that was spelled out quite clearly in the chapter’s mission statement. But do we send that message out unwittingly as well?

This Harmonet post from John Dunhower a while back got me thinking. Ignore the word “fanatics” and think about what he’s saying:

From what I’ve seen, every chorus seems to have “senior fanatics” (10% or so of membership), “junior fanatics” (10% or so of membership) and a bunch of “Average Joes” (80% of membership). The “senior fanatics” were the movers and shakers of the past. The “seniors” know what they liked, value tradition and often resist change. The “junior fanatics”, of which I count myself, are the current men of the hour. We tend to do whatever we have to do to reach their goals. Change is easy for us and decisions are often made unilaterally. Both the “senior fanatics” and “junior fanatics” are the guys that live and breathe the hobby. We want contest success. We sing in quartets. We are the guys that show up week after week and year after year. We are eternally frustrated with everyone else for not meeting our expectations or goals. (We are also the minority.) For better or worse, the “seniors” probably ran their Chapters yesterday and the “juniors” probably run their Chapters today. I say for “better or worse” because while these men, both “senior fanatics” and “junior fanatics”, obviously provide great value to their groups, they aren’t necessarily the best choices to lead them. At least that is, if you are trying to attract new “Average Joes” to the hobby. But, if you want to attract more fanatics, they are the perfect men for the job!

What do you think? Are we structured around giving more value (and more work) to the guys who “live and breathe” the hobby? Are they our main audience? Or should we give permission for men to have a little less ambition in the hobby — that it’s okay to just want to show up and sharpen skills, sing some good music, but not spend a lot of extra time or money on the more “consuming” aspects of our hobby?

And, considering that it’s the most dedicated 20 percent driving things, will we always have tension among the differing levels of ambition? Or is there some way for such men to happily co-exist in the same chapter as the men who might join if there weren’t such a steep commitment curve?