Fraternal Thoughts in Print!

Big news! 24 of the most-read and beloved posts from this blog have been compiled into a book, Forever Fraternity: Essays to Challenge, Celebrate and Advance the College Fraternity. Discussion questions have been added in order to make the book an educational tool as well.

Order your copy off of Amazon or Barnes and Noble. If you wish to order a quantity of 20 or more to use for a program or Greek leadership class, contact John Shertzer at for a discount.

An e-reader version will be available soon!

Tuesday, June 26, 2018

Four Quotes That Every Student Leader Should Memorize

Most leadership enthusiasts, like myself, love quotes.  We pull them into presentations, articles, and day-to-day conversations.  Quotes are satisfyingly small nuggets of timeless wisdom.  They can speak volumes in their brevity.  I’ve been reviewing some of my favorite quotes recently, and rediscovered four that I think could be considered essential for any organizational leader to understand.

Jeff Cufaude introduced me to this quote over a decade ago.  It’s fairly conventional wisdom now that the best leaders are not the ones who rely on the “do it or else” technique.  We just don’t have the tolerance for strict authority in our leaders anymore.  Instead, we want to be driven towards achievement by the understanding that our work matters, and that we are not the only ones who want the group to succeed.  When a group of individuals unite around shared purpose and objectives, it is a group that will find a way to win.  When that doesn’t exist – when we don’t share a common purpose with our teammates – then what devices are left to the leader?  As Dee Hock states, “command and control.”  A leader who tries to command their group to perform, or control their activities, is one that has lost them.  So, when you return to campus this fall, ask yourself: how can I ensure that our members understand and believe in the mission we’re trying to achieve?  By reaching that point, your team will almost drive itself.

One idea is to take the first meeting of the year, or even better, find a time for a retreat, and do nothing more than review the mission and purpose of your organization.  Ask members to reflect on how they can personally support that purpose, and what needs to happen collectively in order for the purpose to be realized more fully this year.  Every group needs to get re-centered now and then, and the start of a new year feels like the right time to do it.

Organizational culture is a powerful thing.  Peter Drucker found a way to personify it as perhaps the strongest thing living within an organization.  You can spend months or years creating visions and plans, but your success will be dependent on the capability of the culture to accept and implement those ideas.  You may wish for your organization to become the strongest and best on campus.  Yet, your culture may be one that rewards and encourages mediocrity.  You may wish for your members to have the highest GPA on campus.  Yet, your culture may downplay academics in favor of parties and alcohol.

So how do you change or affect culture?  It’s the tallest task leaders can face.  The most effective way is to remove the cancerous cells.  To cut out those who most negatively influence the culture you are trying to build.  At the very least, stop providing those individuals with forums and outlets by which to be so influential.  For example, don’t take a slacker and make him new member educator. 

If you are writing goals and plans for your organization (good) then add a column entitled “culture.”  Reflect on what kind of culture you have right now – is it one that takes a person and lifts them up, or tears them down?  Does it seek opportunities for the organization to be its best, or to be its worst?  Expect that what you write in that column will need to be addressed first.

This quote is probably the most succinct explanation of contemporary leadership that I could find.  Keep in mind, as you take this journey of leadership, that you will be remembered more for who you were than what you did.  That’s not to minimize the expectation that all leaders and organizations are forward-moving and achievement-oriented.  However, the best leaders understand that without attention and care for others, lasting achievement isn’t truly possible.  You can be the kind of leader that very few people experience in their lives – the one that makes them want to be better and want to do more. 

So, take the extra time to provide feedback to someone that deserves to hear how great they’re doing.  Take the even more time to provide feedback to someone who’s getting off course.  And take the most time to simply sit and listen to someone else, for that simple act can be the most significant of all.

The essential question is, when you engage with those you lead, how do you make them feel?

Organizations of all shapes and sizes are notorious for getting caught up in things that just don’t really matter.  Whether it’s personal drama, minutia, or small ideas, we are all susceptible to be being distracted away from the big stuff.  What is the big stuff?  Mission.  Vision.  Values.  As a leader, you will be challenged to keep this front and center, and not get too caught up in T-shirt colors, gossip, and colossal wastes of time.  

You may want to start this year with an audit of how your organization spends its time and energy.  Are you focused on the right things?  As I’ve written about before, if historians were to judge this period in your organization’s history, would they give you high marks for focusing on significant issues?  Imagine you were putting items on a scale.  Which item would weigh more (meaning it’s a greater focus)?  And, is that the way it should be?  For example, what would the balancing scale read for:
New Member Education vs. Greek Week
Initiation vs. Annual theme party
Service Projects vs. Formals
Recruitment vs. Intramurals
It’s not that you can’t or shouldn’t have small things (e.g., intramurals) as part of your fraternity experience.  That’s the fun stuff that can fill in the gaps.  But the big ticket items should never suffer because of those, or ever take a back seat.  

So, to summarize the lessons that these famous quotes provide, focus on things that matter such as the people you lead and the shared purpose that unites the entire organization.  Doing so will create a culture that embraces excellence.  That sounds like a great start to the year. 

Please feel free to share your favorite quotes below.  What words of wisdom drive you and your leadership experience?


Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Beware the Trough of Disillusionment

Thousands of recently initiated first-year students have closed out their freshman years and have started the all-too-short summer march towards sophomore status.  Getting that first year under your belt is a significant achievement.  My worst year academically was the first year.  New experiences and new friends plus over-indulgences in things like food, beverage, and campus activities can be exhilarating, but can also take a toll.  If you made it through, then the wisdom you’ve attained will serve you well next year.

Fraternities and sororities also have to balance the desire to take a much needed break over the summer with the need to keep momentum.  At least keep your fraternity house lawn mowed.  Your summer orientation staff will appreciate it.

There is a lot of research and attention being paid to the sophomore year experience.  As described in Belmont University’s Sophomore Experience Plan, “many sophomores experience anxiety and feel pressured; some panic while others withdraw or begin to fail in response to the overwhelming reality of college. No longer are they in the freshman bubble, focused on making friends, learning campus life, and reaping the benefits of freshman experience courses, programs, and other support systems.”

This concern for the sophomore year reminds me of something I learned about just recently: the Gartner Hype Cycle.  Have you heard of it?  It’s a graph that illustrates the common public response to new media and technology.  Here it is:

Here is a summary of the points along the cycle:
Technology Trigger: A potential technology breakthrough kicks things off, especially thanks to media interest (think newest Iphone).  
Peak of Inflated Expectations: Early publicity produces a number of success stories—often accompanied by just as many (or more) failures. Basically, it’s time to decide if the product lives up to the hype. There is really no way it can.
Trough of Disillusionment: Interest wanes as experiments and implementations fail to deliver and because the technology did not live up to its overinflated expectations. 
Slope of Enlightenment: More instances of how the technology can provide benefits become clearer and more widely understood. Second- and third-generation products appear.  
Plateau of Productivity: The real-world benefits of the technology are demonstrated and accepted. The final height of the plateau varies according to whether the technology has broad usability or only benefits a smaller niche market.

I’m most interested in the trough of disillusionment, because we all can relate to the let-down that follows an over-hyped experience.  If you are a techie, or a gamer, or even just someone who can’t wait for the next summer blockbuster movie, you’ve felt the highs of anticipation and the lows that always come afterward.

Can this graph apply in any way to the Greek experience?  I see a few connections.

Imagine the top of the graph – the peak of inflated expectations – to be the moment you hand the bid card to a new recruit.  At that moment, especially if it’s accompanied by cheering, hugs, chants, and celebration, the recruit feels euphoric about this opportunity.  They are on top of the world.  Their mind is filled with a highlight reel of all of the best thoughts of fraternity or sorority they’ve ever held.  So, of course there will be a downward slope.  Once you reach the peak, there is no other choice. 

However, the fraternities or sororities that can use their pledging period as a chance to harness this enthusiasm will push through the trough of disillusionment into a more productive phase.  These are fraternities and sororities that see the spirit and joy of a new member as an asset to the organization, and not something to quell because the new members “need to be taken down a notch.”  The new members begin to see how the fraternity can benefit them and how they can benefit the fraternity.  Those who don’t reach this enlightenment probably disengage and move on. 

Those Greek organizations that haze their new members and intentionally make pledging a negative experience are basically sending those new members on a greased sled equipped with a jet engine rocketing down into the trough of disillusionment.  And then those fraternities and sororities sit and wonder why they have a motivation problem in their membership.

Another fraternity connection to the hype cycle: new colonies.  New colonies are ripe for the trough of disillusionment because the amount of time and effort it takes them to reach the peak.  Campuses and headquarters alike love new colonies because they are a glimpse into our pledging-free, values-based, Ritual-driven core.  Colonies are the closest we get to our origins.  It’s too bad that often doesn’t last.  Newly-charted groups, in their effort to fight the doldrums of the everyday fraternity experience and to regain the electricity they once had, think the answer is to start doing what the other chapters are doing.  But that leaves them actively trying to be average.

The newly-chartered groups that achieve the realization that their differences are what makes them successful find that enlightenment that leads them back up.

A final application of this for fraternity takes us back to the start of this essay.  Just as universities are concerned about the sophomore year experience, so should you.  It could be argued that the sophomore year is the most critical year in the undergraduate Greek experience.  It’s really when a member makes the determination for how much they want to give to the chapter.  Those who vanish in their Junior and Senior years likely started to drift away as sophomores.

How do you support your sophomore members and help them keep stay motivated?  A few ideas:

  • Don’t build your pledge program to be a grueling sprint to the finish line (initiation), because a finish line is how they’ll view it. 
  • If you have a big brother or big sister program, the sophomore year is the time to really use it.  Pull together all of the big brothers/sisters for the newest pledge class early this Fall.  Ask them to pay lots of attention to their littles at the start of the semester, including things as simple as having them make sure the new members attend chapter meetings or get involved on committees.
  • Chapter presidents/officers can do a lot by just sending emails or letters to the new members over the summer months.  Help them remember their pride of membership, give them goals to look forward to, and thank them for their decision to be involved.

Hopefully this gives you something to think about over the summer months, especially if you have identified member involvement as a issue to address.  The point is to be aware of the trough of disillusionment, to understand that it’s part of any significant experience, and to not get stuck there.  There are ways you can make it easier to fall faster and harder into the trough, so be careful.  Instead, as you consider your members' experience, how can you make your fraternity or sorority one worth staying invested in, one worth working for, and one that creates enlightenment over disillusionment?

Friday, March 30, 2018

What if Pledging Programs Sounded Like This?

Check out some of these clips of Steve Kerr (head coach of the defending NBA champions the Golden State Warriors) talking to team superstar Stephen Curry.

Coaching. It's not just for sports anymore.

Coaching is a term that is readily used now to describe any relationship in which someone with knowledge or understanding imparts that knowledge or understanding to someone who needs it.

Coaching is a term in the modern workplace. Good managers no longer just manage, they coach.

Coaching is a term in leadership development. To train and prepare an emerging leader is to coach him or her. Executives of Fortune 500 companies now routinely have personal coaches with whom they can seek advice and be pushed to improve their leadership and strategies.

In fraternity and sorority life, coaching can play a large and present role each and every day. But perhaps there is no more apparent place for coaching than in the new member education / pledging process. Here we have young men and women for whom fraternity life is a new concept (or one pre-loaded with incorrect assumptions and expectations). On the other hand, we have those with experience and knowledge (albeit maybe only a year of experience) and can now pass those learnings along.

Many fraternities and sororities use a big brother or big sister program as part of pledging, which can become a built-in mentoring relationship even after the new member is initiated. Like many things in Greek life, it seems to me that the truly powerful opportunity of a big brother / big sister relationship is being squandered. It is mostly seen as "cute" extra connection between brothers or sisters resulting in gift-giving and little else.

So what could be done instead of or in addition to that reality? Feedback.

The best thing a coach can provide to a "player" is feedback. There are two kinds of feedback: developmental and appreciative.

Developmental feedback is for those times in which a person needs to be confronted or provided with constructive criticism. While there are many examples in sports of coaches that do this is an attacking way, in productive mentoring relationships this is done in a way that builds up a person, and not tears them down. Some phrases a good coach might use would be: have you considered doing it this way, or what do you think the impact of that choice had on others, or what decision might have created a different outcome? Truthfully, developmental feedback is the hardest for me and it turns my stomach into knots. I don't like confrontation, but I've also realized that it's essential if I want to get the best out of others. I'm still getting better at it, and a few tips I'll pass along:
1. Prepare ahead of time. Do not go into a developmental feedback conversation without practicing how you phrase your comments, and without considering what kind of response you'll get.

2. Focus on the behavior, not the person. You are providing feedback on a choice or decision they made, not on their personal character. This makes it easier for the person to receive the feedback, plus you can remind them that you too have made dumb or wrong choices before.

3. Do it in private and do not embarrass the other person. Developmental feedback is private and the goal is to help the other person. Being publicly shamed or humiliated (even if the coach has good intentions) can create anger and defensiveness.
And now...for my favorite. Appreciative feedback. This is the stuff leaders live for. This is an opportunity for you to make someone's day and in turn, make your own spirit brighter. Appreciate feedback is noticing an action or behavior, praising it, helping the other person make sense of it, and encouraging him/her to do more if it. The video above is full of appreciative feedback, and it's truly what makes that coach get the most out of his all-star player.

Let's say your little brother in the fraternity arrives to a chapter meeting early and is spending time talking to each brother, shaking hands, and being friendly and conversational. You like this behavior and want to see more of it. Here is a formula to follow:
  • Observation: what positive action, behavior, or demonstrated quality did you observe?
    "I noticed that you went out of your way to give greetings to each of the brothers."
  • Acknowledgement: reflect back on your observation.
    "I think this was a great way for you to meet more of the members and to help create a good environment for the meeting." 
  • Appreciation: add meaning to the person’s behavior from your point of view.
    "I appreciate that you want to build relationships with the other members and be an active presence in the fraternity. This is exactly what will make this fraternity stronger."
Powerful stuff. And all you had to do was notice it and comment on it. 

Choose to be a coach to those younger members in your chapter. But not just any coach. Be the kind that gets the best out their players by giving life-changing feedback. You will be amazed at how rewarding it can be to help a young person grow and improve. And you might even by surprised by how much you grow and improve in return. 


Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Going for Gold (or actually, Green)

I absolutely love the Winter Olympics. Cool stories, a fun study in geography, and strange but interesting sports. When else does ski jumping, curling, and slopestyle become prime time viewing? 

I noticed something different during the figure skating competitions this time. While the athletes were skating, little green, yellow, and red boxes appeared by their name. These indicators measured how well the skaters would perform the technical aspects of their routines. Here is how the website Thrillist describes it: 

The technical score [of a figure skating routine] is determined by a panel of judges gauging how well things like spins, jumps, footwork, transitions, and other elements are executed in real time. Each element is worth a certain "base" score (the more difficult the move, the higher its base score), and essentially, judges assign an overall technical score by adding up the scores of all successfully completed maneuvers. 

So, how do judges know what maneuvers to look out for...Well, each competitor has to submit the plans for their skate -- sequentially -- ahead of time. Accordingly, each gray box you see before an athlete starts their program represents a technical element they intend to execute. The different colors indicate how well they pulled off a specific technical component.

If the skater has successfully completed a move, the box will turn green. If the skater didn't successfully pull it off, it'll turn red. A yellow box indicates that the judges aren't quite sure and will need to review it (if you notice, as you keep watching yellow boxes eventually turn either red or green). 

Part of me appreciated this as a tool for the casual viewer to know how a person was performing, but another part of me missed the suspense of not knowing how the scoring would come out. If you saw a guy with 2 red boxes, you already knew there was no chance, since the guy before him only had one. Anyhow, it’s like the yellow first-down line in the NFL - it’s probably here to stay.

I had a slightly humorous and mostly serious thought enter my mind. What if we, as humans living our day to day lives, had these green-yellow-red boxes appear whenever we made a choice or engaged in a behavior? What if others could see how we were scoring in terms of effectively living our daily lives?

Now, in order for this to work, we would have to be judged against something: a routine, a plan, a blueprint of sorts. Basically, we’d be judged against a standard for which we live our lives. Perhaps it’s a religious doctrine, or community norms, or at the minimum, laws and regulations. If you jay-walk, you’re definitely getting a red box. (or maybe yellow, since who really gets in trouble for jaywalking?)

In the workplace, maybe you are evaluated based on how well you perform your daily to-do list, or if you develop a new idea. In the classroom, you could get green boxes for paying attention and participating, and yellows for taking Buzzfeed quizzes instead. The guy next to you snoring, with his head dangerously close to laying on your shoulder, is off-the-charts red.

But what about fraternity and sorority life? For what would we earn green boxes next to our name?

The Ritual.

The Ritual is your routine, your plan, your blueprint. As soon as you are initiated, a series of gray boxes show up next to your name, and it's now your job to make them green. The Ritual will sometimes allow you to comfortably skate in a straight line, but will also ask you to pull off a quadruple axel on occasion. Are you up to the challenge?

For example, my fraternity’s Ritual asks me to be kind and generous to others, even strangers in need. That’s the foundation for the “Helping Hand” of Theta Chi. So, if today I was to walk idly past a person who has fallen down, that red box next to my name will be loud and obvious. If I was back in my college fraternity house, sitting across the breakfast table from a brother who is in clear emotional pain, what would my Ritual call upon me to do? Be worried but just walk away (red)? Say something motivational like “I’m sure things will get better” (yellow)? Or, clear my morning to spend in conversation with him so that I can get him the help he needs (green)? If I knew that a box would appear next to my name based on my decision, I might give it some additional thought.

But here’s the thing, we obviously do not have those boxes literally popping up for all to see. Our success and our mistakes are not always broadcast to the world. 

But imagine there is a panel of judges who can see them, and who would mark you up or down based on how well you perform. For fraternity, this panel might include your founders, your big brother/sister, your favorite alum, etc.

And most importantly, it includes you.

When you go to bed each night, look up in the sky and find your row of boxes. They are sitting there below your name. Was your routine - your Ritual - executed well? Did you deserve the yellows and reds you see, and can you make those green tomorrow?

Remember that in skating, a green box doesn't mean that a particular element was flawless...just that it was executed well. Your Ritual isn't calling upon you to be perfect, but it certainly will give your guidance on what will "score well." 

Let's go land those jumps.

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Five Signs That Could Save a Life

Another horrible school shooting. 

Like you, I’m wondering why the hell this happens and what we can do for it to never happen again. Maybe like you, I also recognize it’s a complicated issue that will need to be addressed from several angles.

In the aftermath, it has been learned that the shooter demonstrated some behaviors and made some statements that were troubling. For many in the school, there is shock in what happened, but not necessarily in who the perpetrator was. Clearly, someone who acts in this way is unhealthy mentally and emotionally and likely has lived in that state for a long time before he opened fire. 

Now, this isn’t to cast aspersions on those who may have noticed some troubling signs but didn’t act upon them. Who knows what you or I might have done with similar information. In addition, no person who chooses to shoot up a school fits into a formula of detection. There are others (thousands more) in our society who struggle with what the shooter may have struggled with, but don’t lash out in such a violent way. 

Could he have been stopped by something as simple as a caring conversation some months earlier? Hard to tell. 

I’ll leave the discussions about guns to another blog. This blog is about organizational living, especially as expressed in the college fraternity and sorority experience. In that way, it is also about the dynamics that occur when we live in community with other people…be that a fraternity, or a school, or a workplace, or a family. Community life calls upon us all to take care of each other. 

If a brother or sister of yours were to clutch their chest and show symptoms of a heart condition, we’d call 911. If a brother or sister breaks their hand, we will get them to an emergency room. But, if a brother or sister is struggling with another organ – their brain – we don’t always act as quickly. Likely because we don’t understand the signs or are scared by ideas like depression, schizophrenia, bipolar, and suicide. 

I was recently introduced to a simple and effective tool that all fraternity and sorority members should understand and utilize in this regard. 

The tool comes from an organization called The Campaign to Change Direction, whose purpose is expressed as follows: 
The Change Direction initiative is a collection of concerned citizens, nonprofit leaders, and leaders from the private sector who have come together to change the culture in America about mental health, mental illness, and wellness. This initiative was inspired by the discussion at the White House National Conference on Mental Health in 2013, which came on the heels of the Newtown, Conn. tragedy. 

If you recall, Newtown is where Sandy Hook Elementary is, which was the worst school massacre in American history. 

The campaign has developed the Five Signs, which is a simple way to help us all be more observant towards the plight of those we are in community with. Noticing these signs can help deter the severe consequences of someone who becomes mentally and/or emotionally unstable.

The Five Signs and the description from The Campaign to Change Direction for each are as follows:
Personality Change 
Their personality changes. You may notice sudden or gradual changes in the way that someone typically behaves. He or she may behave in ways that don't seem to fit the person's values, or the person may just seem different. 

They seem uncharacteristically angry, anxious, agitated, or moody. You may notice the person has more frequent problems controlling his or her temper and seems irritable or unable to calm down. People in more extreme situations of this kind may be unable to sleep or may explode in anger at a minor problem.
They withdraw or isolate themselves from other people. Someone who used to be socially engaged may pull away from family and friends and stop taking part in activities he or she used to enjoy. In more severe cases the person may start failing to make it to work or school. Not to be confused with the behavior of someone who is more introverted, this sign is marked by a change in someone's typical sociability, as when someone pulls away from the social support he or she typically has. 

Poor Self-Care 
You may notice a change in the person's level of personal care or an act of poor judgment. For instance, someone may let personal hygiene deteriorate, or the person may start abusing alcohol or illicit substances or engaging in other self destructive behavior that may alienate loved ones.

They seem overcome with hopelessness and overwhelmed by their circumstances. Have you noticed someone who used to be optimistic and now can’t find anything to be hopeful about? That person may be suffering from extreme or prolonged grief, or feelings of worthlessness or guilt. People in this situation may say that the world would be better off without them, suggesting suicidal thinking.

Let’s be honest: many of us walk the other way at such signs because we don’t want to create an issue if one doesn’t really exist. Yes, perhaps we get burned by reaching out to a brother who is showing these signs but it’s related to something else, or they are in denial about them. We might be judged as intrusive and it could impact the friendship we have with this person. 

But the consequences of inaction are far worse. 

Should they get mad, here is an easy retort: “I’m your brother/sister dammit, and checking in on you is my job.”

Knowing the signs is one thing, but then what? Very likely you are not a trained counselor or therapist, and you should NEVER try to be. Be with them and supportive of them as you help them find a professional who can help. If you are reading this from a college campus, stop right now and look up where you counseling center is located. Here are some helpful hotlines as well.

How much different could our history and current situations be if more people were willing to fight through the fear of reaching out and more willing to have the vulnerability to throw themselves in front of a person who is traveling a dangerous path and say “I love you and I’m not going to let you go there.” 

Thank you to the Campaign to Change Direction for bringing attention to this issue. I’m sure they would welcome a national fraternity/sorority (or several) to their list of sponsoring organizations. Mental health, depression, suicide, and all associated issues are all significantly prevalent in today’s fraternity and sorority. One of the outcomes of tragedy is that it tends to wake us up.

This is a call for all of us to stay awake this time, and truly discover what it means to help each other. 

Thursday, February 1, 2018

The Place Between Places

Image result for trapeze artist
I recently experienced some changes in my life professionally and personally that had me somewhat flipped upside-down.  Life changes as a 21-year-old can be thrilling, as a 31-year-old can be invigorating, but as a 41-year-old can be downright terrifying. I was organizing some files, and found a favorite essay buried within my "inspiration" folder. Reading it as this point in my life made a deeper impression than when I first read it a decade ago. I thought I would share it, because I feel it's one of those beautifully-crafted passages that every person needs to read. Trust me, there is undeniable truth in what he is saying.

The author is Danaan Perry, is the passage is excerpted from the book Warriors of the Heart.
The Parable of the Trapeze
Sometimes I feel that my life is a series of trapeze swings. I'm either hanging on to a trapeze bar swinging along or, for a few moments in my life, I'm hurtling across space in between trapeze bars.

Most of the time, I spend my life hanging on for dear life to my trapeze-bar-of-the-moment. It carries me along at a certain steady rate of swing and I have the feeling that I'm in control of my life.

I know most of the right questions and even some of the answers.

But every once in a while as I'm merrily (or even not-so-merrily) swinging along, I look out ahead of me into the distance and what do I see? I see another trapeze bar swinging toward me. It's empty and I know, in that place in me that knows, that this new trapeze bar has my name on it. It is my next step, my growth, my aliveness coming to get me. In my heart of hearts I know that, for me to grow, I must release my grip on this present, well-known bar and move to the new one.

Each time it happens to me I hope (no, I pray) that I won't have to let go of my old bar completely before I grab the new one. But in my knowing place, I know that I must totally release my grasp on my old bar and, for some moment in time, I must hurtle across space before I can grab onto the new bar.

Each time, I am filled with terror. It doesn't matter that in all my previous hurtles across the void of unknowing I have always made it. I am each time afraid that I will miss, that I will be crushed on unseen rocks in the bottomless chasm between bars. I do it anyway. Perhaps this is the essence of what the mystics call the faith experience. No guarantees, no net, no insurance policy, but you do it anyway because somehow to keep hanging on to that old bar is no longer on the list of alternatives. So, for an eternity that can last a microsecond or a thousand lifetimes, I soar across the dark void of "the past is gone, the future is not yet here."

It's called "transition." I have come to believe that this transition is the only place that real change occurs. I mean real change, not the pseudo-change that only lasts until the next time my old buttons get punched.

I have noticed that, in our culture, this transition zone is looked upon as a "no-thing," a noplace between places. Sure, the old trapeze bar was real, and that new one coming towards me, I hope that's real, too. But the void in between? Is that just a scary, confusing, disorienting nowhere that must be gotten through as fast and as unconsciously as possible?

NO! What a wasted opportunity that would be. I have a sneaking suspicion that the transition zone is the only real thing and the bars are illusions we dream up to avoid the void where the real change, the real growth, occurs for us. Whether or not my hunch is true, it remains that the transition zones in our lives are incredibly rich places. They should be honored, even savored. Yes, with all the pain and fear and feelings of being out of control that can (but not necessarily) accompany transitions, they are still the most alive, most growth-filled, passionate, expansive moments in our lives.

From the book Warriors of the Heart by Danaan Parry.

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Meeting the "Administration"

There is a building on your campus that houses the "administration."  It is probably near the center of campus, looks formal and foreboding, and is encircled by storm clouds. If one listens closely, the sounds of cackling can be heard emanating from it's halls.  It is in this building that the "administration" plots against you, tries to make life difficult for you, and holds endless meetings on how to kill the Greek system.  Portaits of Dean Wormer and Napoleon Bonaparte adorn the halls.

Of course, this is fiction.  But I feel as though this is how students instantly perceive the higher level leaders of their college or university, such as their President and Vice Presidents.  Their Greek Advisor is okay - because they have seen him or her in shorts running around smiling during Greek Week.  They've met that person and it seems like he/she is on our side.  But the administration is something distant, ominous, and uncaring.

The best chapters - the most proactive ones - understand a very important fact:  There is no such thing as the administration.  There are administrators.  With names.  With whom you can work to build relationships. 

New presidents should set up regular check-ins with their campus Greek advisor, with their chapter alumni advisor, their faculty advisor and any other advisor who works as closely with the chapter.  But really good presidents (and council presidents as well) find an hour to have an annual meeting with those at higher levels.  The spring semester may be a good time to do this.

Why?  Not only is it a good educational experience for you, but it's a great way to build a bridge that can be helpful later.  Be the president that's willing to make that meeting happen.  Here are some tips:

In preparation for the meeting:
  • Develop an agenda and then share that agenda with the administrator.  Not only does that ensure you have a purpose to the meeting, but it demonstrates your preparedness.
  • Be ready to look nice and to be on time.  
  • Make sure that those you bring along can properly represent the fraternity.
Here is what I recommend for the meeting agenda:
  • Offer thanks and appreciation.  Start the meeting my thanking the administrator for what they do, and for hosting your chapter on the campus.  If you don't understand all that they do in their role, give them a chance to share that with you.
  • Summarize the state of your fraternity.  Share with him/her your achievements over the last year.  Brag a little bit.  What are you doing that should make the administrator proud to have you on this campus?  If he/she were explaining the Greek system to a colleague, what stories can you share that they could pass along?  Think about academics, service, leadership, etc.
  • Their thoughts and vision for Greek life.  Invite them to share their perspective on how Greek life can improve on this campus.  Listen very intently, because next you should...
  • Express how you think your fraternity can contribute to that vision.
  • Provide your own thoughts and feedback.  Here is a chance for you to offer your own opinions for how the university can better support Greek life.  Don't be adversarial.  Frame it with the vision that they shared with you.  If the university did ______ , then our fraternity can more easily meet your vision for Greek life.
While you are in the meeting:
  • Listen actively.  Come into the meeting willing to learn something new or to hear a perspective you hadn't yet considered.
  • Be open and friendly.  In that moment, you are an ambassador for your organization and for all of Greek life on your campus.
After the meeting:
  • Deliver a handwritten thank you note to the administrator.
  • Invite them to attend a meal or other function that would positively showcase your fraternity. 
A particular note on college/university presidents.  I see many of them get criticized for not being student-friendly or student-focused.  Of all the administrators, they can often seem the most distant from you as a student.  You know what - that's okay.  If your president is doing his/her job, they are keeping the institution open so that you can achieve your degree.  They are bringing resources to the campus to improve life there, and they are focused on the priorities that their board of directors has laid out for them.  Because of this, they often cannot spend time attending every student event, or strolling around the campus shaking hands.  But that's why they have Student Affairs officers, such as a VP and/or a Dean of Students.  They should be ones focused most on your immediate issues.

It's not to say a President LIKES spending their time so distant from your experience.  If you talked to them, I'm sure they would say the good stuff about their job is when they can be with students.  That's why I am certain they would accept your invitation to meet, and would really enjoy the experience.

Spend time understanding the administrators on your campus, and striving to get to know them.  You will likely find that the formerly dark and dreadful administration building actually has a bright welcome mat at the front door.

Thursday, December 14, 2017

The Dark Side of Fraternity and the Fears That Take Us There

I am a Star Wars nerd, and proud of it. I grew up with the original trilogy and still have the boxes of toys and action figures to prove it. Tonight I take my sons to see the newest installment and I'm stoked. While as a child I appreciated Star Wars more for its action and adventure, as an adult, I can better see the deeper themes it conveys. 

The Star Wars canon is based upon the idea that there is a Force that binds the galaxy. That Force can be used for good, as it is by the Jedi, or it can be used for evil, as it is by the Sith. The evil use of the Force is called the dark side. It's power is drawn from emotions such as fear, anger, and hatred. Those who go to the dark side are often tempted there because of their inability to handle such emotions and by the promise of significant power. The dark side is not a natural state of being, but the inability to foster positive emotions of peace, justice, and kindness combined with the inability to control negative emotions makes the lure of the dark side difficult to avoid.

Kind of sounds like the real human experience, doesn't it? And the fraternity experience as well.

If there is a Force that binds together the fraternal life, then there is also a light and dark side. What seems apparent, especially in light of recent headlines, is that too many of our brothers and sisters are being drawn to the dark side. Because of that, they use fraternity as a vehicle for their worst impulses and wreak damage upon it as they go. 

But like in Star Wars, I believe that the dark side is unnatural, which means there are reasons why someone would be drawn there. 

Like Master Yoda, I believe it is about fear. The Jedi Master once told his pupil Luke Skywalker:
“Fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.”
I believe there are three primary fears that fraternity and sorority members all have as they enter the experience, and how they address or manage those fears determines if they find the light or dark side of fraternity life.

Fear of Vulnerability
Perhaps one of our greatest fears in life, as well as in fraternity, is the fear of vulnerability. It's what leads us to be scared of public speaking, hesitant to be open with our emotions, and fearful of being rejected by those we admire. This avoidance of vulnerability leads us to build walls around ourselves and to live a carefully manicured life.

To be vulnerable with our brothers or sisters means that we are honest with our emotions, open with our challenges, and willing to admit our mistakes. It means inviting deep conversations about life, and a desire to explore our inner self through conversations with others. Bestselling leadership author Patrick Lencioni lists vulnerability as the number one thing necessary for teams to be successful.

The man or woman in your organization who fears vulnerability is the one who makes up for it by trying to be always funny, or always cool. He or she probably is recognized by everyone, but truly known by no one. It might be hard to describe his/her life outside of the fraternity, or really describe anything other than surface-oriented traits. Their insecurities are masked by indulgences that look like a cry for self-discovery. I know this fear, and almost all of us deal with it.

Fear of Accountability
The fear of accountability doesn't simply mean fear of being caught doing something wrong, just like a 4-year-old hides the fact that he stole a cookie from the jar. It goes a little deeper than that. It really means fear of being called to be a better man/woman than we already believe ourselves to be. It means not wanting to face the fact that to strengthen our character means doing really hard work and being open to those we love holding a mirror to our faces and pushing us to be something more.

The fraternity experience is expertly designed for those who want to be better versions of themselves. Not only does it proactively do this through training, education, and exposure to life-guiding values, but living life in such close proximity to others means that our flaws will likely be exposed. If the fraternity life is lived well, there is conflict (internally and externally) that puts our character on full display. Our brothers and sisters then are uniquely positioned to challenge us, question us, and hold us accountable to who we want to be.

The man or woman in your organization who ignores the fraternity experience as one in which they can become better likely struggles to fully embrace it. These may be your disengaged members, or the ones who start strong but never progress to become the members others thought they would be. They may grow to see fraternity as only a vehicle for enjoyment, and treat it as such. They are afraid to be criticized for their thoughts or actions, and thus the easier choice is to drift into the shadows.

Fear of Acceptance
As human beings, we all want to be accepted and appreciated. It's a chief reason why so many of us seek out organizations - to achieve that sense of belonging. But we are scared that our true selves, our personalities, our idiosyncrasies, and our personal traits are not good enough to be accepted. We tell ourselves that we should instead model the behavior of others and wear their faces instead.

This fear of acceptance leads us to conformity. And in today's fraternity, unfortunately, conformity looks an awful lot like the dark side. It's more normal to respect the social calendar more than the Ritual. It's more normal to treat pledges or younger members as neophytes instead of equals. It's more normal to be apathetic instead of raising one's hand to serve.

When we fear acceptance, then we may choose to live fraternity as others do, instead of listening to our inner voice. You can probably see how all of these fears are linked. If we aren't vulnerable, then we aren't placing our true selves forward to be accepted. And because of that, we may discount how much power the fraternity experience has to make our true selves even better.

If you do not believe that you can ever truly be accepted in your fraternity for who you authentically are, and this has been tested, then it's time to find another.

Those who are able to conquer (not likely), or manage (more likely) these fears are those who will find the strength in the light side. It starts with understanding them, and acknowledging that it's normal and appropriate to have all of these fears. And then, deciding to be vulnerable, to be held accountable, and to seek acceptance for your authentic self.

If we are too proud to acknowledge these fears in ourselves, and thus ignore how much they are controlling our destinies, then the dark side will come beckoning. 

May the Force be with you.


Wednesday, November 29, 2017

5 Signs Your Fraternity is a Thick Organization

"Some organizations are thick, and some are thin. Some leave a mark on you, and some you pass through with scarcely a memory."
- David Brooks

It seems to be all the rage right now for campuses to ban, either by administrative fiat or IFC resolution, fraternity activities. The common reason given is for the Greek community to have time and space for soul-searching. So allow me to suggest a framework by which fraternities and sororities can adequately search their souls. 

A fraternity mentor of mine, John Bloom, shared with me an outstanding column by David Brooks of the New York Times. In this article, Brooks defines what it means to be a "thick" organization, mostly as one that leaves a mark on you. He adds other criteria, such as:
  • An organization that "becomes a part of the person's identity and engages the whole person: head, hands, heart, and soul."
  • One with a set of rituals.
  • One with shared tasks, that often involve members looking out for one another.
  • Organizations that "tell and retell a sacred origin story about themselves."
  • One with a common ideal.
  • Possession of an "idiosyncratic local culture" that differentiates them from other organizations.
As I read through his criteria, the idea of fraternity emerged in my mind. Fraternal organizations are ripe to become thick experiences for their members because they inherently have all of those traits listed above. One could say that the longevity of the fraternity movement in this country can be attributed to how "thick" these organizations can be. University administrators certainly know that when they contemplate the future of fraternities on their campuses, they are dealing with very significant entities that can offer thick experiences.

And yet, so many of our members have thin experiences instead. Fraternity becomes something they did for a short while, and their memories get packed away in some box they store in their attic. Fraternity for many is only about the few friendships they've held on to, instead of a deep and holistic values-based and life-directing experience. And because of that, they are less willing to care for these organizations as they experience them and thus are more willing to participate in damaging them.

Why should you care to make your fraternity a thick organization? There would likely be some strong tangible benefits such as stronger alumni engagement and more members inspired to contribute more. The intangibles, such as a richer and more fulfilling experience, would almost definitely show up as well.

Overall, if we can make our fraternities be the thick organizations they are destined to be, then many of the problems that lead to all-university bans and suspensions will go away.

So, take Brooks' criteria as the base for a thick organization, what would be evidence that this base was maximized to build a truly special fraternity? Here might be some indicators that your fraternity is thick:
  1. Members discuss the fraternity in terms of how it has become a part of their identity, and not just something they are involved with. The values of the fraternity become a regular part of jargon used when members talk about what fraternity means to them. And, the ideals of the fraternity become included in how members describe their own aspirations for the kinds of individuals they hope to be.
  2. Alumni engagement is substantial, meaning their involvement is directed towards ensuring a strong future for the chapter, and not just based in reliving the good old days. Alumni who have experienced a thick fraternity will likely donate more time and money to the organization and see themselves in a mentoring role for the current undergraduates.
  3. Involvement of Juniors is strong. I've become convinced that we will never get the devoted attention of Seniors because they are in a period of life transition that focuses their energy elsewhere. I would judge a thick organization by what its Juniors are doing. Are they filling important leadership roles, attending events and activities, strongly involved in recruitment, and finding ways to represent their chapter elsewhere on campus. If interest starts to wane in the Junior year, it shows that the organization is only thick for a short period of time, which means it really isn't thick at all.
  4. An observer would label your recruitment efforts are relational. Thin organizations master the art of the sales pitch and the show, since that's all they can rely upon. Thick organizations build their ranks through conversation and authentic relationships. Hardly any training or preparation is needed because members of thick organizations can speak from the heart. When this happens, only those seeking thick experiences will want to join and that benefits us all.
  5. Thick organizations are not cyclical. Many fraternities and sororities have peaks and valleys over time - in membership and campus influence. Being so turbulent in success means that the chapter is defined by who members are in specific periods of time, and not by the strength of its rituals and common ideals. Sure, thick organizations can struggle and they are not immune to downturns. However, those downturns are often episodic and mended fairly quickly. While thin chapter A is on-again, off-again over the period of 20 years, thick chapter B is almost always on, with only a few blips along the way.
There are many different ways you can judge the value and strength of your fraternity, especially in its undergraduate form. I really like Brooks' terminology and definitions because you can really feel them - thick versus thin.

Just like a thick sheet of ice can withstand a lot of pressure and weight, thick organizations will remain solid and standing, even when all the bans and suspensions go away.

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

A Serious IFC (Part 2)

In the last post, I described 5 reasons why many IFCs are not taken seriously. This week, my goal is to provide ten steps that any IFC can take to gain more credibility. There are many more answers than the ones I will give below, and the ones I give could use more explanation than I have room to provide. If you want any further details on my ideas, feel free to ask questions in the comment section or contact me directly. Here we go…

1: Define Your Purpose
If the purpose of your IFC is in question, then your mission as a council for the next year is to define it. If you accomplish nothing as an IFC except to agree upon a purpose (sometimes conveyed as a mission statement or statement of purpose), you still will move mountains. It’s that important. I encourage you to appoint a small task force of IFC delegates and officers to take on this task. This task force should work off a 6-month timeline, and do some or all of the following:
  • Review current documents, including the constitution, for evidence of purpose and mission.
  • Interview major stakeholders, such as fraternity officers and members, campus administrators, and other governing council officers.
  • Investigate IFC mission statements from peer institutions.
  • Consult resources available from the NIC, AFLV, and other entities.
  • Draft a 1-2 page document describing the findings and proposing a new statement of purpose for the IFC. The full IFC then discusses and debates the document.
Having a defined purpose can then inform how you structure committees, officer positions, and agendas for the IFC meetings.

2: Chart the Course

I’m a big fan of retreats to start a new era. It’s a great time for trust-building and vision-casting. The retreat can focus the group on the issues that matter to the fraternity system. Develop a list of 6-8 strategic priorities for the IFC. Such priorities could include: (a) increase fraternity membership, (b) update and ratify the IFC constitution, (c) develop a stronger working relationship with other governing councils, (d) build relationships with senior administrators, (e) provide more education and resources for chapter officers, etc. Your journey as an IFC will be easier with a map.

3: Get the Right People in the Room
In my opinion, the right people to attend IFC meetings and represent their chapters are the chapter presidents. I know how busy a chapter president is, but serving as an ambassador for the chapter, representing member interests, and building stronger interfraternal relationships are all part of his job description. He is the right person for the job.

4: Set a Professional Meeting Environment
I know a serious IFC when I see one. So do your delegates and stakeholders. If they visited your meeting, what would they experience and see? The most serious IFCs among us take intentional steps to ensure a professional environment for their meetings.

This includes location. Try to avoid the dingy, chalky classroom on the 3rd floor of some random academic building. It kills creativity. Also avoid the large lecture hall or auditorium, for these spaces inhibit natural conversation. Ideally, find a big open room in a central location, in which you can set long tables in a square, so that the delegates can all see each other. Trust me, it helps.

When the first delegate arrives, the room should be set and ready to go. Ideally, IFC officers are already present, floating around the room and greeting attendees. Light refreshments can’t hurt. Provide each delegate with a name placard that lists their first and last name, and their fraternity affiliation (or IFC officer position). These guys are going to be engaged in important debates – it helps if they can call each other by name.

Finally - call me old-fashioned, but shorts, ballcaps, and sandals will give one kind of atmosphere, and shirts, ties, and badges will give you another. I like the latter.

5: Make the Meetings Valuable
Serious IFCs spend time having thoughtful discussion and debate about the biggest issues confronting the fraternity system. In order to make space for this, reduce the amount of time spent giving reports and making announcements. For instance, items that do not require discussion can be e-mailed in advance, or distributed as handouts.

Once you’ve made the time, now you can talk about what matters. However, without some structure, delegates will simply stare at each other. One idea is to take the strategic priorities you develop at the retreat, assign a small task force of IFC delegates and officers to investigate and make recommendations on each priority, and then spend each meeting addressing a different priority. Each task force can present recommendations and lead the discussion (which is a great way to share leadership).

You may need to work up to this, but I believe that 75% of each IFC meeting should be spent discussing system-wide issues and strategic direction. IFC members should come prepared to be intellectually challenged by complex and consequential questions.

6: Take a Stand
While an IFC should always strive to be proactive, there will be times when a problem or issue is forced upon you. You may need to fight. For example, what if your host campus wanted to defer recruitment until the sophomore year? Many IFCs would wallow in self-pity while the policy changes. Be stronger than that. Start by passing a resolution in the IFC meeting condemning the new policy. Send the resolution, with a cover letter by the IFC president, to relevant campus administrators. Next, set up meetings with the administrators in order to share the resolution and the IFC’s concerns. Be persistent, but courteous. Involve external entities such as alumni, national offices, and the NIC. These are defining moments for a representative group like an IFC, and you’ll be remembered most for how you handle them. Be a champion for the fraternity system. Perhaps a quote from Teddy Roosevelt is appropriate:

“The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood..."

7: Do an IFC Road Show
In order to increase visibility, send IFC officers out to chapter meetings at the start of each semester. The goal should be to share with the chapter members a few of the major IFC initiatives and issues. In addition, it’s a good time to listen to needs and concerns from the general members.

8: Learn the Power of the Written Letter
Yes, we live in an e-mail and social media culture. It’s revolutionized how we do business and communicate with each other. Fine. I encourage you to break from the norm every now and then, and learn the power of the personalized letter. Invest in a stack of IFC letterhead, IFC envelopes, and a nice blue pen. Whenever a fraternity wins a national award, send them a letter. If a chapter receives publicity for a service project, send them a letter. Founders Day for one of your chapters? Send them a letter. Consider copying the Greek Advisor and the Chapter Advisor. It doesn’t take a lot of time, and the fraternity that receives the letter will likely post it on a bulletin board. That’s where important letters from important people typically go.

9: Have More Personalized Conversations
At the start of the new IFC year (new officers and delegates), the IFC President should set aside time to meet with the president of each fraternity represented on the IFC. If possible, include other IFC officers as well. The purpose of this meeting is for the IFC President to do 2 things: (1) build rapport, and (2) listen. Here is a good list of questions to start with:
  • What are your hopes and aspirations for your chapter?
  • How can the IFC help you achieve these aspirations?
  • What do you expect from the IFC in general?
  • How do you think your contributions can make the IFC stronger?
  • What priorities should the IFC address this year?

10: Set Up Regular Meetings with Senior Administrators

The IFC President and Officers should establish regular standing meetings with senior administrators. It is important that these meetings be proactive and positive, and generally accomplish 3 things: (1) inform the administrators of recent IFC and chapter accomplishments, (2) share concerns and questions from the delegates, and (3) listen to the needs and perspectives of the administrators. Such administrators would include: the President, the Vice President of Student Affairs, the Dean of Students, the Director of Housing (if applicable), and the Provost. These meetings may only occur once a semester, and that’s okay (unless there is an urgent issue). It’s about reminding them that you’re here and working to build a stronger fraternity system. By building a friendly and professional relationship, they are more likely to listen to you when it matters most.

Those are several of my ideas and I hope you've found them helpful. I plan to build out some of them in future posts. Please share your ideas in the comments section below.

If the fraternity movement is to succeed, it needs strong, active, and credible IFCs to help steer the ship. Here's your chance to lead. Seriously.