Helicopter Advisors

Guest Post by Ellen Shertzer, Director of Leadership for Delta Tau Delta International Fraternity

During a focus group recently conducted with fraternity men I posed this question: “Describe an experience during college that you feel has helped you develop the most.” Right away one of the men said that it was an event he planned for the chapter that had failed miserably. He shared how he had no idea what he was supposed to do, but jumped in and tried to complete the task on his own. Through reflection after the event he realized many things he could have done differently. He even commented on how he was going to teach the student who would have the position next year what he learned to avoid those problems in the future.

I have to admit I was surprised, excited and a little befuddled by his answer.  I was expecting him to talk about a leadership retreat, or an experience like UIFI, or some other event planned by someone like me.  It challenged my thought process on how we build and deliver educational opportunities for our students. It also encouraged me to reflect on my own advising style as a fraternity staff member.

We have all heard of the Millennial generation and their overbearing helicopter parents. You may have even experienced this during sorority recruitment when, for example, a mother contacted you about her daughter not being invited back by every chapter.  Or perhaps when a fraternity president’s father called you in response to your request to meet with his child due to some hazing allegations. I immediately get frustrated in those situations and criticize the parents for not allowing their children to fully experience these teachable moments.

I am now rethinking this concept and would like to propose a new term: the helicopter advisor.  We often mock and criticize the helicopter parent – but perhaps they are not the only ones hovering above our students.

I admit I have fallen victim to this tendency in my professional career. The helicopter advisor may be a professional campus Greek advisor or chapter advisor. They are so involved with the chapter, council or community that they rob students of learning moments. For me, I know I fell victim to this during Greek Weeks, sorority recruitment, president retreat planning and many other highly visible events or programs. We often become more focused on planning a successful event versus allowing the students to experience the process.

For example, as an undergraduate member of my chapter I served as the recruitment director for Panhellenic. I had a Greek advisor who was new and gave me 100 percent of the responsibility for delivery of the program. She wasn’t around when compute-a-rush (for those of is old-schoolers) crashed and, God forbid, she didn’t spend the night in the student union with us. After the event, the Director of Student Activities took me out to lunch to discuss my experience. I remember complaining about the Greek advisor’s lack of involvement.

Now looking back, I wasn’t as insightful as that 20-year-old fraternity man to see the opportunity I was given to fail and succeed in my leadership position. I was more focused on the fact that this advisor didn’t swoop in and save the day as I had been groomed to expect. Thirteen years later I realize the impact that experience had on my life.

My challenge for Greek advisors and chapter advisors is to assess your style and determine if you are a helicopter advisor. Do you swoop in and save the day? Or do you allow and encourage failure to happen? Do you thrive on running a well-oiled operation that continues to produce successful products? Or do you bite your tongue even when you know the answer is to allow students the chance to solve the problem on their own?

Our society needs men and women with the autonomy and resiliency that comes from making and learning from mistakes.  It doesn’t need more people whom, when faced with challenges, look upward in the sky for their helicopter advisor to save the day.

Ellen Shertzer recently joined the staff of Delta Tau Delta after working for Fraternity and Sorority Life at Indiana University.  She has also advised Greeks at the University of Maryland and Northern Illinois University.  Ellen is a member of Sigma Sigma Sigma and has served as a national volunteer.


  1. Great food for thought, Ellen! I am 100% with you on this!

    I know that I have fallen into this category at times in my career and this is a great way to reflect on our priorities as advisors...what are we really teaching students by doing for them?

    I think that in higher education, some focus has been lost in allowing students to learn by their failures. I've worked on a number of campuses that sometimes it becomes almost a business environment versus and educational one. Especially in working with fraternities and sororities, there comes a pressure to be successful in the eyes of various constituents...the upper administration on our campus, our very own peer group, from a national organization perspective, from alumni and from our expectations (i.e. to prove our relevance, to show increased membership, to show increase attendance at events/program, to show that students are “getting it,” etc.). Our roles become a balancing act of working in the environment of being successful in the eyes of those constituents and providing learning opportunities for students (i.e. allowing a student to fail). Ultimately, if our own professional success takes priority, it is the students that we are failing!

  2. Nice post Ellen. I concur with Beth's comments, and would add that as an advisor and administrator at the same university, often the performance of the chapter is a reflection of my own. So their success has implications for my own.

    I would also say that the extent to which I hover is based somewhat on how much the exec board knows. Early in their terms I am more hands on as they gain knowledge, but that goes away as they gain confidence and skills, to the point that I find myself saying and doing less, because they are already aead of me. Similarly, I was more high touch as an advisor when they were a colony than I am now as an active chapter.

    I'm sure there are things I do that the members should be doing, and as I grow along with them, I push more off my plate and onto theirs. At the core, I think we all have good intentions of wanting the chapter and its members to maximize their potential.

    Is the same true, though, for the absentee advisor who removed educational opprtunities or sets them up for failure by not doing enough, rather than doing too much?

  3. I love the post Ellen! I traveled as a Leadership Consultant for my international organization last year. Here is a video that I used as part of a program that I created called "Failing with Flair and Embracing Learning Moments": http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z7O8s6NgAck. For those looking for some a resource, it might be helpful!

  4. Ellen, I agree 100 percent.
    I am in my third year as an undergraduate fraternity man, and have seen the arrival and departure of three different Greek Advisors. Reading your description of a “helicopter advisor” describes one of those three advisors perfectly. Staying on the use of colloquial terms of parenting, I would describe the other two as “Lawnmower Advisors.” These are the advisors who attempt to smooth out and mow down all obstacles, to the extent that they may even attempt to interfere at their student's workplaces, regarding conflicts, accreditation, and work beyond their time of payment. These advisors made my life more than easy. It was smooth sailing from August to May because every solution was just an e-mail away. Now sitting in the transition period of having no “active” Fraternity Advisor, the conflict resolution and simply put “work load” are on my shoulders. Although struggling at times and heightening the level of stress, the experience has built more confidence and given me insight into a more realistic approach to life. Now I can see that the grass is greener on the other side. (Pun Intended)
    Jake Wight
    Delta Tau Delta
    PS. I have been a follower of this blog since my days as a freshman, it is beyond a small world that I can put the author all my fraternal inspirations into a realistic position.

    Thanks for all you do Ellen.