Fraternity as a Force for Social Change

It’s beyond time to change the way we talk and think about fraternities and sororities and their role in our modern times.

Ever since fraternities were founded, their relevance and purpose has been questioned. Because they started as secret societies, formed in opposition to the institutions their members belonged to, fraternities have been under attack and constantly criticized. This causes us to have a reactionary posture in our DNA. To often wait for the incoming fire before we build a shield.

And it also causes us to look internally and be protective. Our question too often is “how do we protect what fraternity is from these forces acting against us” whereas it could be “how do envision what fraternity should be in light of the world we inhabit.”

The calls to shutter our doors and abolish Greek Life will keep coming, especially when the only apparent contributions to society that the public sees are networking to get jobs and the occasional low-level service project. We can be so much more, and it's time to show it.

I have been in the fraternity movement for 25 years, and I have lost count of the number of committees, commissions, blue ribbon panels, studies, and conferences focused on reacting to our greatest ills: hazing, sexual assault, alcohol consumption, inclusiveness, and more. I don’t question the need for such work, and many of the essays in this blog and in my book deal with these same issues. But beware, especially new entrants into this movement, that when you hear someone say that forming a committee or conducting a study to address a longstanding issue is a “bold move,” it’s actually one of the most mundane and redundant things we can undertake.

What would be bold? To go on the offense. To start thinking about and talking about why fraternity matters to our greater society in 2019 and beyond. We need to discuss this and then deliver messages that indicate that we see the world the way it is today, and we want to be part of the solution. There are vast and truly debilitating social epidemics in our culture today; ones that we as fraternities and sororities are primed to solve.

Let’s look at it this way: by sitting in a reactionary posture and thinking that true leadership is only addressing the issues we face internally, we act like a crumbling brick structure. We try to patch, we try to rebuild, but for every brick that we add, 2 or 3 fall to the ground and shatter. We appear to the world like an institution always under fire and thus always trying to shield ourselves from the onslaught, or pretend that we’re not crumbling. But it’s clear to all that our structure is not as tall or sturdy as it once was.

Being proactive means that we need to consider for ourselves what value we want to offer the greater society. Thinking about the value we offer our host colleges and universities is one part of that, but if that's all you think about you aren’t thinking boldly enough. We are a big enough movement to affect life beyond our campus gates.

So let’s appear to the world like an institution that believes it is vitally important to advancing our culture and building stronger communities. Because we are.

While we put some energy towards solving the issues that plague us (such as hazing), we need to run a parallel track that addresses how the fraternity of the 21st century leads in a world that wants and needs cures for catastrophic social epidemics.

What kinds of social epidemics? The list is long and alarming. More Americans indicate they feel lonelier than ever before. Suicide rates are climbing and the rate among teenage girls is the highest it's been in 40 years. 130 people a day die from opioid abuse. People are finding all manners of destructive ways to cope with the lack of connection they feel in their lives.

What else? How about the #metoo movement and the apparent racism that continues to exist in our society? What about sexual violence and gun violence, and violence of all forms? What about the fact that 7000 students drop out of high school each day?

And as a punctuation point, consider that in my home city of Indianapolis, zip codes only 14 miles apart (a 15 minute drive) have differences in life expectancy of 14 years. This isn’t an impoverished or war-torn city. This is a growing Midwestern municipality. This is in America.

Can the fraternity and sorority movement address these social calamities?

Wrong question.

HOW can the fraternity and sorority movement address these social calamities?

Let’s work towards that goal and prove ourselves to be a structure that doesn’t crumble, but rather is adding new layers of impact all the time.

Over the next several posts, I plan to take on specific social epidemics and discuss how the fraternity and sorority movement can be a force in their dissolution. I encourage you to join me in this quest and consider this institution you love a bit more boldly.

Let's make fraternity a force for the social change our world most desperately needs.


Love Your Brothers

"I don't have to like my players and associates, but as their leader, I must love them.  And, please believe me gentlemen, my love will be relentless." 
(Vince Lombardi)

In regards to the current improvement and future success of the fraternity movement, the Beatles had it right: All You Need is Love. 

Yes, love.

Let me offer this in a different way.  As fraternity men, we do not love our brothers enough, and if we loved our brothers more, we'd be in a better place.

I'm not speaking about romantic love, although that could happen.  I'm speaking about much more primal and original meaning of love - the act of extending yourself for others to make them better.   

C.S. Lewis said that,  “Love is not affectionate feeling, but a steady wish for the loved person’s ultimate good as far as it can be obtained.”  

In short, when you decide that love is more than a Nicholas Sparks novel or a Hugh Grant movie, you'll realize that love abounds in the fraternity experience.  Yes men, love is all around, and love is all you need.

It's hard for men to say "I love you" to each other.  It can feel awkward and unusual.  I remember the first time I decided to start saying it to my dad more frequently.  Ironically (or perhaps not), I made this decision while in college and while in my undergraduate fraternity years.  I decided one night to start ending our weekly phone conversations by saying "I love you" to my dad.  I wasn't sure what I would get on the other end of the line.  After a few seconds, the reply was "I love you too." 

If you have trouble saying those exact words to the men you call your brothers, understand that there are other ways to say it.  It gets back to understanding what love really means.

Loving your brothers means confronting them.  It means putting a halt to decisions that could ruin the lives of your brothers, or others around them.  It means stepping between a brother and potential disaster.  When you say "stop" or "no" to a brother, you are saying "I love you."

Loving your brothers means caring about their situation and their experiences.  It means observing a quivering lip or a watery eye, and putting your arm around him.  It means noticing someone's absence and taking the extra step to find him.  It means genuinely inquiring about their life.  When you say "how are you doing today" to a brother, you are saying "I love you."

Loving your brothers means pushing them.  It means challenging them to bring their best. It means getting them off the couch and to the meeting, or event, or service project.  It means acknowledging achievements and rewarding extra effort.  When you say "I expect more of you" to a brother, you are saying "I love you."

Love is central to the fraternity experience.  Love is central to the bonds that create brotherhood and sisterhood.  Love is another one of those cherished few aspects of fraternity that separate our organizations from every other.  When we forget the importance of love in the modern college fraternity, it's as though we're forgetting the fraternity itself.

If a person chooses to live life independently, to be the solitary climber on top of the mountain, then he may be able to avoid love.  Although, loving yourself may be the most important action any person can take.

When you elect to be a part of fraternity, and let fraternity be a part of you, you give up independence.  The same can be said for marriage, or bringing children into the world, or any other decision that involves intense relationships.  When you make those choices, you decide to begin sacrificing a part of who you are in order for the others in the relationship to thrive.  And they do it in turn for you.  This willing act to give yourself for others and be in community with them is a glorious expression of love.

And that's why love exists in every minute of the fraternity experience.  

Let's all strive to be better at loving our brothers.  It is not easy, but it's fairly simple.  If you've ever been to a wedding, likely you've heard the famous biblical passage about love found in Corinthians.  It can serve as a roadmap for how we can be better at love.
Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends. 
This passage wasn't written for weddings only, or even at all.  It was written, I believe, to attempt to describe the indescribable - to put into words the human experience.  To try and reflect the best of who we are as people.

And isn't that what we try to do in fraternity?  To strive to be an ideal expression of human connection?

Without getting too deep, I would just offer this:  If we accept love as the only way we can truly be brothers with each other, then we can realize our potential as organizations that bond men together.

And, it wouldn't hurt to say it more often as well.

And just because I'm not sure if I ever said it back long ago - to all my brothers from 310 North Bishop...I love you guys.






Leadership in Our Chapters…and the Abilene Paradox

Guest Essay By Dave Westol, Limberlost Consulting

It has been said that the boards of directors of non-profit organizations are often composed of good—I will make that very good—men and women who nonetheless may make bad or occasionally terrible decisions as a board that none of the directors would make as individuals.

And that sounds counter-intuitive. Why would individuals, who were theoretically elected or appointed because they possess strong positive qualities including the ability to analyze facts and data and make sound decisions, do the exact opposite while in a group of good people?

Why indeed? And how does that apply to our undergraduate chapters?

Mr. Rhetorical Question, may I present the Abilene Paradox?

The Abilene Paradox is the creation of Jerry B. Harvey—now Dr. Harvey—who has contributed in many ways to the study of organizational dynamics. His Paradox theory has been used countless times to explain a simple concept—that people react differently when in a group, especially when they are in a leadership role.

The Abilene Paradox occurred to Jerry when he was a doctoral student. He and his wife were visiting her parents in Coleman, Texas on a Sunday afternoon in August. Coleman is located about fifty miles southeast of Abilene.

Jerry was sitting on the shaded back porch of the home playing dominoes with his father-in-law at about three o’clock in the afternoon. It was hot but pleasant—a breeze, cold lemonade, peaceful. Then, it happened. His father-in-law got to his feet and said, “Let’s go to Abilene to the cafeteria for dinner!”

Jerry, not wanting to be branded as the whiny son-in-law, said, “Ah, okay”. His wife, knowing what was in store but also wanting to go along with the apparent majority, said, “Ah, okay”. His mother-in-law said, “Let’s get going if we’re going to go”. And away they went, each of the four knowing that the trip would involve a two-hour drive over dirt roads in an un-airconditioned automobile for a dinner that would be a tribute to gastrointestinal distress followed by another two-hour drive home.

The trip and the food were worse than anticipated. After they arrived home, his mother-in-law reportedly said, “I don’t know why I let y’all talk me into that”. Jerry responded that he didn’t want to be in the collective “Y’all”—that he had not wanted to go in the first place. His wife agreed. His father-in-law then justified it by observing that his daughter and son-in-law seldom visited and he thought that they might want something different. He added that he would have been happy with a beer and leftovers served on the back porch.

There you have it…the Abilene Paradox. Four intelligent people agreeing to a course of action that not one of them would have done as an individual…and to please others who in fact were not pleased.

When board members fail to state their true opinions; when they misperceive the collective reality; when they will not challenge or question because they defer to older, more experienced board members or when they allow friendships, shared experiences or other real or imagined affiliations to affect decision-making—then the board of directors has just climbed onto the bus for Abilene, as Dr. Harvey notes in subsequent writings.

Dr. Harvey also includes action anxiety (my interpretation is the reluctance by board members to pull the trigger or make a decision—“We need more information!”), fantasized risks, fear of ostracism by other board members and group tyranny as other aspects for the Abilene Paradox.

And do those dynamics apply to undergraduate chapters?

Absolutely.

Perhaps more so than with a board of directors, because our undergraduates often have stronger perceived bonds. Friendships, roommates, “She gave me a ride home last Thanksgiving”, “He threw me a TD last week at the game”…all factor into the chapter version of the Paradox.

One of the best arguments against the emphasis placed upon pledge class unity in hazing chapters is that we intentionally create our own version of the Abilene Paradox—we require our new members to think, act and in some cases speak alike, thus effectively snuffing individualism, critical thinking and initiative. When I served as CEO of my national fraternity I often saw that dynamic, especially during times that called for a significant decision. The brother who was stiffing the chapter on a large bill and up for suspension…the junior who was unsuited to serve as president but nominated…watch and listen as his pledge class lined up on the side of their former pledge brother because of blind loyalty rather than what was right for the chapter.

What can we do as chapter leaders to prevent our version of the Abilene Paradox?
First, we can create an atmosphere—a culture in our chapters—in which all members, not just older or more experienced members—can voice their opinions without fear of being ridiculed or mocked. Presidents and other officers: this is your area of control. Set the tone at meetings.

Secondly, we encourage a culture of inquiry—that is, a culture of healthy debate. We ask for and listen to opinions and arguments. We don’t, however, waste the time of the chapter with repetitive arguments or duplicate comments that begin with, “I agree with ___” Chapter presidents, this is your time to guide but not control the discussion.

Third…we get it right. That means that we may disagree with others but through that process of discussion and debate—attorneys often call it, “Discourse”, which is a good word for reasoned, respectful disagreement—we arrive at the best resolution.

Mark Baltz is an official in the National Football League who lives in Zionsville, Indiana, and attends some of the weekly meetings of the high school football officials held in downtown Indianapolis. I am co-chairman of the Football Committee with Bud Klumph, a Sigma Chi from Arizona State, and we schedule Mark to speak to our 100+ officials each year.

In his presentation Mark always notes that the biggest mistake he made in his career was starting a varsity football officiating crew with four friends. They were good officials…but they had difficulty speaking to each other in blunt and candid fashion. They allowed their friendships to get in the way of getting it right.

As a football official, I understand that simple concept. We must get the call right for the players, the coaches and the fans, whether there are 200 or 8,000. Friendship, hurt feelings or perceived slights have no place in an effective crew. We cannot get on the bus to Abilene and agree with a bad call because we don’t want someone to feel hurt.

As chapter leaders, you must encourage, prompt and indeed stimulate thoughtful discussion and discourse, especially about important topics or issues. Then, you must zealously safeguard the right of each member, regardless of age, seniority or status in the chapter, to speak to those topics and issues. You must insure that members feel comfortable challenging and questioning practices and decisions that in years past may have been no-brainers.

Finally, you must help sisters or brothers find that “getting it right” place. Sometimes that means you must put aside your feelings about an issue or question. There is a difference, of course, between a legitimate issue and voting on an illegal activity such as hazing. That is one occasion when you must stand up and speak out.

The Abilene Paradox…will exist as long as we fail to encourage our members to stand up and speak out. Many a chapter has been asked, “What were you thinking?” after a serious incident, problem or tragedy. I suspect that the answer is: “We were thinking…but we were not expressing our thoughts”



Dave Westol served as CEO of his national fraternity for eighteen years and now has his own consulting company, Limberlost Consulting, Inc., in Carmel, Indiana. He has served on the board of directors for FIPG, Inc. and as a football official for over 30 seasons. He can be reached at David.Westol@gmail.com.

The Gift of Appreciative Feedback


Need help finding a gift this season for that friend, or colleague, or student, or family member? I invite you to consider a very inexpensive, simple, and life-changing gift.


The gift of appreciative feedback.


When I was starting out as an advisor to college and youth student groups, I thought that providing feedback meant only the critical stuff. And thus, I avoided it because I never felt comfortable giving constructive criticism. I’m still not comfortable with it, but I’m better at it now after years of practice. To me, it’s still the worst part of advising (albeit very important).


What I didn’t realize at the time was that developmental feedback had a cousin…a much more friendly cousin that fell right into my strengths zone and brought a whole lot of joy to the advising experience.


Appreciative feedback.


Appreciative feedback is that feedback which identifies a behavior that is positive, notices it, comments on it, helps add meaning to it, and thereby amplifies it more loudly than it would have otherwise been.


To me, it’s what makes advising fun. It’s the good stuff, man. It’s the chance to shine a light and watch a chin rise, or a chest puff, or a small grin of pride on the face of a young learner.


And we do not do it enough.
 

David Rock, author of Quiet Leadership: Help People Think Better-Don’t Tell Them What to Do! (2006) states that people tend to receive positive feedback only a few minutes out of every year, versus thousands of hours of negative feedback.


But wait, you might be thinking, I’m a positive person! I tell people good things all the time! That may be true, but note that true appreciative feedback goes much deeper than “good job” or “I’m proud of you.”


Real appreciative feedback is not just a compliment. It is precise and personal. And, it should focus on behaviors and qualities you want to see more of. 


Knowing what those specific qualities are is the first step. For example, one quality we often want to see more of is hard work. As important as that is, it’s still too vague. What do we mean by hard work? You will need to answer for yourself, but if I’m advising a group of students it might include things like:

  • Tenacity: Can a student work through a setback or a challenge?
  • Determination: In a given task, does a student stay focused and not give up on the goal?
  • Optimism: Is there a glimmer in their eye, even when times are tough or the road is long?

Once you have identified some of these specific behaviors, then you can start looking for them. And that’s when being an advisor in the room becomes a whole lot less boring, and much more intentional. Your job is not to simply be present, but to scan the room searching for behaviors that deserve appreciate feedback.

According to authors Judith Wilson and Michelle Gislason, who wrote Coaching Skills for Nonprofit Managers and Leaders (2010), appreciative feedback, if done well, has three primary elements:

  1. Observation: Making an observation of a positive action, behavior, or demonstrated quality.
  2. Acknowledgment: Sharing that observation using the facts of what you saw.
  3. Appreciation: Helping to give meaning to the action or behavior by sharing what it means to you or the impact it can have.
For example, let’s say you show up to the weekly chapter meeting, and you observe the President taking time before the meeting starts to move throughout the room, shake hands with the members and thank them individually for being there. (Observation)

After the meeting, you pull the President aside and say “I noticed that you were greeting people before the meeting and taking extra time to welcome them.” (Acknowledgment)

You continue by saying, “I really enjoyed seeing that because I feel that it set a very positive tone for the meeting and the members who took the time to come felt valued and appreciated. This is impactful because it might mean some of these members now understand the importance of being here and will make greater efforts to never miss a meeting. Plus, they likely feel more connected and engaged to the chapter overall.” (Appreciation)

Boom. Simple. And advising magic.

Author Michael Brandwein also has a good framing of this, and he calls it (1) Describe it, (2) Label it, and (3) Praise it. He is also very fond of acronyms and advocates for the L.A.S.E.R.B.E.A.M. technique. Which stands for: Look for Any Signs of Excellent behavior; then: Respond to that Behavior to Educate And Motivate.

Some things to consider:

  • Sincerity is essential, and fake or throw-away compliments can be smelled a mile away.
  • Students are a different levels of growth at all times, and so what would be meaningful appreciative feedback for one might be too simplistic for another.
  • During meetings, or activities, and whenever a group of students is together, I challenge myself to find at least 3 students who are deserving of appreciative feedback that day. I try to find different students each time, but some repeat-recipients are inevitable.
  • While appreciative feedback is best delivered personally and individually, it’s not always bad for others to overhear, since it helps to build awareness of what behaviors are rewarded.
  • On occasion I will deliver appreciative feedback in public to more greatly amplify the message and if I feel the student would benefit from the spotlight of recognition.

Advisors, let’s all commit to making this next year one in which we work harder at appreciative feedback than ever before. I think we’ll be amazed at the results, and also amazed at how much more worthwhile our jobs become.

Let’s give a gift that’s irreplaceable, the gift of appreciative feedback.