It's Your Turn

All across the country, newly-elected chapter Presidents are busy getting prepared to start their terms.  It’s a great honor and privilege to serve as a chapter President – and it’s also a great challenge.  In fact, I still believe that serving as a fraternity or sorority chapter president is the most difficult leadership position on a college campus (with a residence hall RA coming in a close second).  You are leading those you are bonded to, which adds layers of emotion to the position.  I still look back at my year as a chapter president as the most defining leadership experience of my undergraduate years – and it wasn’t because of the joys of the job (of which there were many).  Frankly, I learned the most from the times when it just plain sucked.

For the purpose of analogy, please watch this short bit by comedian Louis CK.  Don’t worry, I muted out his colorful language:

I love this story as a metaphor for becoming chapter president.  You were once safely part of the group, sharing laughter and frustrations with others like you.  You were probably critical of those in leadership positions because we all tend to be.  But now, you are leaving that safety net and stepping forward to take your turn.  Just like a line at the post office, there will be whispers, catcalls, frustration, and anger coming from those behind you. 

And you are standing out there by yourself.

Being a chapter President can be a lonely position.  Whereas before you were a part of the group, now you will be seen as something separate from it.  You’ll be seen as the person who used to be crazy fun but is now boring; the person who always says no; the person who now wants to follow the risk management policy.  It’s like you left the back row of the classroom and are now the teacher.

And with that comes criticism.  And pressure.  You will feel the stares of those still in the line.  Their coercive sighs and grumblings will make you want to make faster decisions. But remember, it's your turn.  And probably the only one you'll get.

So, how can you manage your need to lead with your desire to remain the same fun person you were before?  To still be seen as one of the group?  The short answer is: you probably can’t.  But let me tell you why that’s something to celebrate.

The reason being a chapter President is a profound leadership experience is because it is one of the few places left on a college campus where individuals learn real leadership.  Your term will be full of all the stuff of real leadership: building a team, confronting a peer, demanding accountability, being decisive, setting priorities, and sharing power.  And it also means making people you care about mad – because you won’t let them slack, you demand their best, and you call them out for their failure to perform. 

You may have an advisor, but you are generally on your own.  And just like corporate or nonprofit CEOs have to answer to a board, you have to answer to your alumni or headquarters.  Things will be flying at you a million miles a minute.  You’ll be nervous a lot.  And you’ll make a lot of mistakes.  You are learning lessons as an undergraduate that many people don’t learn until their third job.

And I hate to break it to you – but before your term ends, you will have ended some friendships.  Just a like a parent prepares him/herself mentally to hear their child say “I hate you!” for the first time, you should prepare yourself for a version of the same.  This is not a position for those who want to be liked.  Popularity means little in real leadership – otherwise someone like Ashton Kutcher would be the leader of the free world.  Real leadership is about respect – something you may not earn until years after you’ve done your job.

Not all is dire, by the way.  There are ways for you to step forward from the line and still maintain your membership in the club.  

First, simply be honest with your friends.  Make sure they understand the position you are in as the chief steward of the fraternity.  Let them know the legal risks you have assumed.  Help them understand the reasons behind your decisions.  If they are real friends, they will listen to you.

Second, consider keeping a “kitchen cabinet.”  This term refers to a team of informal advisors that a leader surrounds him/herself with in order to stay aware of the pulse of his/her followers.  Get your friends' opinions on issues and decisions.  Come back into the line every once in a while.

Also, don't completely isolate yourself socially from your brothers/sisters.  You can still participate in responsible social activities and nights out.  Don't let your position paralyze you from having fun.  But remember, you can have just as much fun with low key events like a night of playing cards as you can with big parties, and the former carries fewer risks for you.

Something else to consider – you likely engaged in behaviors that you will now condemn.  Be ready to be called a hypocrite.  Chalk it up to wisdom and maturity, and move forward.  Admit your mistakes, but don’t let others use them as an excuse.

Finally, be humble.  The leaders that leave the line and become authoritarian or self-oriented are the ones that lose friends and followers alike.  Remember what it was like to stand in line, and treat your chance to step forward as a privilege.  Remember that the line is dependent on you to do good work, so that they can take their turn.  Don't treat them with disdain or disparage their feelings.  Because remember, once you're finished, you'll be joining them again.

Congratulations on your election.  You have answered the call and should spend some time enjoying the feeling that comes from your brothers/sisters giving you their trust.  It's an awesome thing.  But once the work begins, don't expect it to be effortless.  You shouldn't want it to be either.  Nothing worth doing is easy.

Have the courage to step forward.

Mr. or Ms. President, it's your turn.

(This post was published originally on December 7, 2010 and has been updated)


  1. Great blog, John. I just shared this with the elected president for the chapter I advise. I hope it inspires her and prepares her for the road ahead!

  2. Great post. Made me think a lot about the next year.

  3. Great advice, John. The post office analogy is perfect, and who doesn't love Louis C.K.?

  4. What an encouragement for the reality that so many will encounter. Thanks, John!

  5. As a chapter president this blog is exactly how I feel and what it is like to be in this position. So wonderful to hear that I'm not the only one who feels this way!! Such a reinforcing message that I will pass onto the next president after me!!

    1. Well said. As a parent of a wonderful young lady who has just completed her term as Chapter President, I would encourage all fraternities/sororities to give this to the incoming presidents and their parents! It helps create perspective when the times get a bit rough. Watching your child go through this at age 20 or 21, knowing most adults can't do what he/she is doing, is tough during the rough times and exhilarating during the good times. Chapter President and parenting - it's not for the faint of heart!

  6. Awesome post! Couldn't agree more

  7. Great post, I'm going into my second term as president, ready and rejuvenated to help lead my fraternity.

  8. Great post...all true. Took me back to 2000-2001 during my run as president. Well done sir.