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The Impact of Perseverance with Bill Courtney (Mississippi)

In August of 2021, Adam Girtz, Director of Chapter Services and host of the Gavel Podcast, sat down to interview alumnus Bill Courtney. Brother Courtney is an initiate of our Epsilon Xi Chapter at the University of Mississippi. He is the president and CEO of Classic American Hardwoods in Memphis, Tenn. He also serves as a volunteer high school football coach and was the subject of the Oscar-winning documentary, Undefeated. Brother Courtney regularly serves as a keynote speaker for the Fraternity’s annual College of Chapters.

The following conversation was taken from Adam and Bill’s interview on the personal and chapter-level impact of perseverance. The conversation has been edited for clarity. The full interview can be listened to here or on your preferred podcast streaming platform. Just look for Episode 8 – Perseverance with Bill Courtney (Mississippi).

Adam Girtz: What does perseverance mean to you?

Bill Courtney: You can be very basic and say sticking to a goal or not being deterred by barriers that form in the way of you achieving a particular goal or mission. But I think, more importantly, perseverance is when you look at yourself in the mirror every morning, do you know that you're doing everything you can within your power to achieve your goals? The measurables, in my opinion, to persevering are not necessarily what other people's goals are for you, but what your own goals are.

Adam Girtz: So, persevering through your self-doubt or the barriers you put up for yourself? 

Bill Courtney: Yeah, I mean, look, if you don't have self-doubt in any major thing you're trying to accomplish, you're either a narcissist or an idiot, right?

The problem is a lot of people have this machismo where they don't want to admit self-doubt. We all have it. The most successful people in the world have self-doubt. They have misgivings. They have concerns. They have stress. They have all of those things. Part of persevering is knowing how to manage all of that internal stuff. 

You can have a boss, manager, or coach who sets goals and provides you with a mission. How you persevere through the obstacles and barriers that come up and achieve the mission can be measurable. You can be held to account by someone you answer to for persevering on getting to that mission. But that's not what perseverance is about to me.

Again, it's about you and the mirror. You, laying in the bed, looking up the ceiling at night. In my opinion, the true measure of perseverance is, in the face of your misgivings and everything you have going on inside of you, do you know you're doing the most you can do. At the end of the day, if you're doing the most you can do, and you're doing all you can to persevere and attain your goal, external measurements of your success don't matter.

Adam Girtz: It strikes me that's useful universally, right? Like running a marathon as opposed to a competitive sport. You may face external factors, but it's how you deal with those things.

Bill Courtney: That's right, but there's a flip side to it too. You may be checking all the boxes and the external measures of achieving a particular goal or mission. Everybody thinks you're great. But when you're looking in the mirror, was that a glide for you? Was that easy? Could you have done more? Perseverance is not only a self-appraisement; “Am I doing all I can even if others think I'm falling short?” It’s also, “Am I doing all I can even if others think I'm achieving, but I could have done more.” Are you squeezing everything out of yourself? Are you doing all you can do? The only person who knows that is you.

Adam Girtz: What impact has this perspective on perseverance had on your life? How has this formed your personal mantra? 

Bill Courtney: I grew up with a lot of self-doubts. Growing up, my dad left home when I was four years old, my mom was married and divorced five times, and my mom's fourth husband shot at me down a hallway with a 38-caliber pistol. The first time I ever saw the campus at Ole Miss, I was seventeen years old, and it was the day I checked into my dorm. I didn't have any money to come to visit the school. I went to Ole Miss because that's where I got a full scholarship. I arrived on campus with all these people my age. I'm driving a ‘72 white Caprice Classic. My friends called it the road commode. You could peel back the carpet and the passenger seat and see through the floorboard. I show up to Ole Miss, wearing the best clothes I could afford and driving a piece of crap, and I'm looking around at all these people driving around 3 Series BMWs and having plenty of money to go out.

You get a lot of self-doubts when you go through a social shock like that. It's, “Do I even belong here,” and how do I assimilate and fit in? And then you get into Greek life, and it's the same thing. 

I put on a good front. I was a good athlete and a fun dude. I liked to have a good time. My grades were good. Most people would have thought I was doing just fine. But I was looking at myself in the mirror in my dorm room, going, "Oh my gosh, am I going to handle all this?"

Then in 2001, I started a manufacturing business with $17,000 on a wing and a prayer. Eleven days after I opened the doors to my business and spent every dime I had, it was 9/11. The economy shut down, and I thought I was going broke. Then the housing crisis in the 2000s. All I'm saying is that many people out there look successful, but they have had all kinds of obstacles to overcome, all kinds of doubt, and all kinds of stress. The measure of the success of any organization or any person is how they were able to persevere through those times. Anybody can be a champ when everything is going right. But how do you handle the tough times? How do you persevere? I would argue that the ability to persevere is tantamount to any level of any personal success.

Adam Girtz: I'd love to relate this concept to our active chapters. Let's compare two chapters. One has leaders and members who understand how to persevere and one chapter that doesn't. What are some of the major differences in outcome that we're going to see between those two chapters? 

Bill Courtney: I think it's pretty obvious. You see chapters and campuses across the country, every year, that have some incident where they're put on probation or they're, God forbid, kicked off-campus, and that's a direct reflection of the leadership. One of my favorite mantras is, "The greatest measure of the success of a leader is the actions of the followers." And if the chapter is running amuck and breaking the rules and doing stupid stuff and getting put on probation, I think that's a direct reflection of the chapter’s leadership. The flip side is if the chapter is making grades, involved on campus, and having parties, but they're not breaking the rules, and they're not risking their chapters' existence on campus, it's probably the result of good leadership. Not just student leadership, not just executive committee leadership, but probably good leadership at the alumni level as well.

You know that old saying, "When you come to a fork in the road, take it." Well, you can't do that. Often, the hardest route is the correct route, and the easiest route is the route that leads you to damnation. Again, that is perseverance. Are you willing, as a Commander or Lieutenant Commander, or part of an executive committee, or an alumni advisory board, or just a junior or senior or older, more mature member of your chapter, to do the right thing and persevere through the difficulties of a bunch of people saying, "Oh, let's go do this. It won't be that big a deal," when you know in your mind's eye, you're about to lead your chapter into really bad troubles. That's where leaders have to persevere, often, against the popular sentiment because the unpopular sentiment is the right sentiment.

Adam Girtz: If a leader recognizes, "Hey, I'm headed in the right direction, but I'm having trouble getting my followers to follow me in that direction," how can a leader foster that sense of perseverance in their team or that sense of, "Hey, we need to choose that harder right over the easier wrong?"

Bill Courtney: I think three ways. One, by example. That's cliche, but it's true. You lead by example. 

The second thing is the greatest leaders always give credit to the followers when things go well and take the heat when things go bad. That fosters a level of trust between the followers and the leaders. That's very important, I think.

The third thing is motive. Followers or members of a chapter will always look at the motivations of their leaders. Are members of the executive committee, the positions of Commander, Lt. Commander, Treasurer, Recorder, Chaplain, etc., are they in those positions because they want to put something on their resume that makes them look really good for their next job interview, or are they doing that because they want the chapter to be the very best chapter it can be on campus and they want the members of their chapter to have a great four-year experience? The motive matters. 

If you give credit where credit's due, take the heat when there's heat, if you lead by example and if you're motivated to be a leader in an organization, such as a business, a church group, a family or a fraternity, so the people that are members of the organization you lead are going to have a better experience or a better life or be raised up through that organization's success if you're motivated by that if you do those three things, you got a fighting chance.

But if your motives are selfish and if you're constantly pointing fingers when things go wrong and taking the praise when things go right, and you talk a lot of smack about what you're supposed to do, but you don't do it in your own life, I think you're going to have an organization that'll fall apart.

Adam Girtz: I'm struck by where you're coming from with this. It doesn’t just apply to the chapter Commander but also to members that are even just getting into the organization. You can lead without having a position of leadership.

Bill Courtney: You don't need a title to be a leader. Some of the best leaders of our time don't have a title. It's, again, motive. Do you want to be a leader because the title makes you a big man on campus, or do you want to be a leader because you want to have some measure of positive effect on another person's life? You don't have to be anointed to take those three tenets of leadership, employ them in your life, and make some positive effect on another person's life.

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