Footloose Leadership

Hollywood is running out of ideas.  Hence, the constant stream of remakes of classic 80’s movies.  Karate Kid, Clash of the Titans, Tron,  and now Footloose.  Why can’t they just leave well enough alone?  I am saddened by the fact that the world’s children may never experience the wonder of a Ralph Macchio crane kick, or Harry Hamlin fighting a sea monster made out of playdough, all because of shiny new retreads.  If they come out with some new auto-tune pop version of Kenny Loggins’ Footloose theme, I’m gonna scream.  By the way, I’m writing this as I smoke a corn cob pipe in my rocking chair.

Anyhow, before the new Footloose comes out and ruins that once glorious franchise, allow me to turn back to the original and find some lessons on leadership and fraternity.  After all, movies are visual stories, and stories are full of metaphors for life.  Some are obvious, and others are hidden.  Here are six leadership lessons I found from one of the best movies of my youth:

1.  Sometimes a little defiance is what the world needs.
There are basically two camps in Footloose - the young people and their quest for self-expression, and the town elders and their quest for moral protection.  While being concerned with morals and values is important, clearly the adults went overboard in the movie - even to the point that they were burning books.  The whole town needed a course correction; a splash of cold water in the face.  The adults in the community had become so narrowly obsessed with protecting their young people from sin, that they were essentially killing each young person’s sense of self.  Enter Ren and his “radical” notion that there’s nothing wrong with dancing and listening to loud music.  He led small acts of defiance which eventually led to a revolutionary change for the community.

As a leader (and teacher, parent, etc.), the moments that drive you the craziest are those moments when those you are leading “act out” against expectations.  Sometimes it’s entirely right to correct them and remind them of why the expectations exist.  However, it’s also entirely right for a leader to stop and think about why that defiance happened.  Are your followers telling you something?  Perhaps they are showing you that the environment is too confining, or that decisions are being made too unilaterally.  Or, perhaps they are in fact leading you in those moments.  They are opening up a pathway that you could not see. 

In higher education we talk a lot about “shared leadership” or that all people are leaders.  If that’s true, then the first thing that needs to go is the tight control that the Reverend in Footloose was exerting.  Don’t bristle at defiance.  Come to understand and accept it - and maybe even embrace it a little.

2.  Dancing around an empty warehouse may not be your thing, but you should take time to unleash your passion.
When I work with nonprofit executive directors, I observe an internal struggle they are contending with.  They started or joined up with the organization because they believed in the cause and wanted to “make a difference.”  As the organization developed and they were elevated to executive roles, the passion for the cause became overwhelmed by the mundane practices of running an business - budgets, benefits, board management, personnel issues, etc.  Those who navigate that shift well do so because they still find intentional ways to remind themselves of the cause that still calls their heart.

One of the most famous scenes in Footloose is when Ren (Kevin Bacon) drives into an old warehouse and does a burning solo dance routine (including some impressive uneven bar gymnastics on the pipes).  His dance is more a result of rage and frustration.  He just needed to let it out.  Sometimes leaders have to find ways to deal with frustration as well, but I would broaden it to include any opportunity to escape the day-to-day grind of your work and rediscover the passion that led you there. 

Read more.  Delegate more.  Spend more time in the trenches again.  For fraternity and sorority leaders, don’t stop having fun.  Laugh more.

As a leader, you are constantly with other people and dealing with the details.  Finding some private time to tear it up in a warehouse may be just what you need.

3.  Don’t play games of chicken with farm machinery.
Seriously, someone could have been killed! 

4.  If given the opportunity, people may surprise you with how well they dance.
A constant challenge for a leader is understanding the strengths of those you lead.  Sharing leadership means putting people in a position to succeed.  If you are tasking the abstract-thinker with the house manager job for example, be prepared for chaos. 

One of the campiest elements of Footloose is how the high school students - having their first school dance ever - could all of the sudden do moves that would make Michael Jackson’s jaw drop.  There was even a dude that could breakdance.  Anyhow, the lesson is that some people have talents and strengths that we never see simply because they haven’t been allowed to use them.

Perhaps their is a man or woman in your organization who doesn’t fit the typical mold of a leader, and so you’ve been hesitant to give him/her responsibility.  Let your impressions inform you, but don’t let them control you.  Perhaps that person is just one opportunity away from doing something extraordinary, such as a toprock that would make Paula Abdul jealous. 

5.  Stand up to the town elders, but do so with respect.
Some may regard Ren’s speech at the town council meeting as the climatic turning point for the community.  However, remember that after that speech, the council still voted to uphold the ban on dancing.  So the young people circumvented the law by holding the dance just over the county line.  This was an “in your face” move to the town elders, and most would have left it at that and went to the dance with their middle fingers in the air.

To me, the turning point in the movie was when Ren went to the Reverend’s house to try and personally convince him to allow the dance.  He went for an honest conversation, which included listening and finding common ground.  This showed maturity on his part and respect for the position that the Reverend and others had taken over the years.  His desire to make change, coupled with his respect for past decisions, produced better results. 

A couple of takeways from this.  First, a good speech can win fans but personal conversations win hearts.  The one-on-one conversation is the single-most irreplaceable tool that a leader has.  Secondly, almost all people have reasons for doing what they do and believing what they believe, and each person believes their reasons to be legitimate.  The adults in Footloose were not acting out of hate, but rather out of concern.  When you respect others viewpoints and treat them as legitimate, they will be more receptive to you when you want to change them.  For fraternity and sorority leaders, consider that the next time you go see your Greek Advisor (and vice versa).          

6.  Loosen up.
Everybody cut, everybody cut.  (Enough said)

So there - a few simple lessons and reminders from Footloose. Watch the new version if you must, for I assume similar themes will emerge.  But I will keep the original as my go-to source for a story about defiant leadership that can change a community.  

Remember, as a leader, to not be afraid to cut footloose every once in a while.  As Ren, the new kid in town, so famously shouted, "Let's Dance!"

Taxes, Spending, and Your Fraternity (Poll)

How much do you care about the financial decisions of your (inter)national organization?

The United States of America continues to be embroiled in a debate about the fiscal condition of our government. Taxes are too high, taxes are too low.  Spending is too much, spending is not enough. The debate even spawned a new entity - The Tea Party- which emerged in opposition to government spending and keeping the issue front and center. Elections are often turned on economic issues, and this next presidential election will likely fit this bill. Any way you slice it, Americans are as concerned as ever about the fiscal state of their government. 

What about the fiscal state of your government - i.e., your national or international organization? Do you care much about that? You pay dues - a.k.a. taxes - but does it really matter to you how those dues are spent? 

Are you concerned with fiscal excess or waste? Or even largess? Does it matter to you how large your headquarters building is? How about how many trips your staff takes, and in what class they fly? Do you know how much your executive director is paid, and do you really care? 

What about spending priorities? Should your dues dollars help plan and subsidize events for only a select number of members? Do you like the materials that are produced and the services you receive from your (inter)national office? Do you like how much time and money is being directed towards fraternity lobbying efforts in Washington DC right now?  Generally, do you feel like your (inter)national organization spends money on the right things to ensure a strong future for your fraternity or sorority? 

All of these questions could also be applied to your governing council on campus as well, since you likely pay dues there also. 

Certainly there are degrees to which you can care about anything. Perhaps you don’t care, but if your dues were to go up, you would start to take notice. Others of you may wish to know how each one your dues dollars is spent. 

Issues of purpose, relevance, and mission help determine an organization’s future. However, financial stability matters almost as much. You likely care about and pay attention to the former, but what about the latter? Does it matter?

Comments are welcome below.

Is it Hazing? Just Ask.

National Hazing Prevention Week is September 22-26, 2014.  Go here for more information.
When challenged to eliminate hazing from new member education programs, a common response from undergraduates is that it's not that easy.  Because "everything is hazing nowadays."  

My response back to them is “you may be right, but that’s not an excuse.”

Here is why they may be right. Some things are very easy to put into the hazing bucket. Physical beatings, branding, sleep deprivation, forced consumption of alcohol, etc.  But what about scavenger hunts, mandatory meetings, member interviews, taking tests, etc.?  Some may feel that these easily fall into the category of hazing, but I see them more as gray areas. 

We have reached a point where you could list any expectation or activity and somebody out there could find a way to call it hazing. And I've seen some hazing experts and lawyers do just that as a way to show their prowess in understanding the hazing issue. Any skeet that gets sent up gets shot down. But where does this leave the undergraduates?  Confused and annoyed; two qualities that typically don't turn them into changemakers. 

So, I sympathize with those who throw up their hands and say that if everything is hazing, why even try to fight against it?

But here is why it is not an excuse to say that everything can be called hazing.  Greek leaders have resources all around them that can give them guidance and clarification as to whether something is hazing.  And, any new member education activity can be replaced with something better. Except of course for the Ritual.

But back to the original question: how do you know if something is or isn't hazing?

Simple. Just ask.

That's right! For just three easy installments of $19.99, you too can have the "Just Ask" solution! Just kidding of course. It's FREE.

In case you don't see it as that simple, I've mapped out a flowchart of the "Just Ask" solution. See below:

This flowchart assumes that your (inter)national headquarters and/or campus Greek Life professional is willing to let you be honest and forthcoming in sharing the specifics of your new member education program. And, in order for us to get a grip on this issue of hazing, they HAVE to be. Your university, your headquarters, and many other entities across the world have challenged you to rid your organization of hazing, and thus you have the right to challenge them to help you do it. After all, in the case of your headquarters, you pay dues in order to receive services in return. 

Some headquarters and campus professionals will be willing and able to meet this challenge, but others won't be. While I appreciate the amount of energy that goes into philosophically attacking the issue of hazing - and many are prepared to argue against it - we need to direct a large portion of that energy to guidance and support of our undergraduate chapters as they move in the right direction.

Fellow professionals: if we get a willing partner in the undergraduate chapters - willing enough to simply ask whether or not something they view as innocent might be hazing - it is our duty to coach them up. Just saying "stop hazing" without any advice or guidance for something better is like the old hazing activity of dropping someone off in the middle of nowhere and expecting them to make it home.

Undergraduates: Have the courage to show your cards.  If you truly believe you have designed productive and educational activities for your new members, then you have no reason to not check them out with the professionals who are paid (sometimes by you) to help you.

If we meet each other half way, we'll leave hazing in the dust.

Grading Recent University Decisions

It’s a tough job being a University President, or any high-level administrator for that case.  Your decisions are always scrutinized and judged, much of the time without all of the facts.  And that’s exactly what I’m about to do.

Three high-profile incidents involving college fraternities and sororities happened recently at three significant universities.  In each case, university administrators took action.  One of the decisions I applauded, one caused me concern, and one made my blood boil.  That gave me the idea to grade the actions of the primary university officials involved in each case.  This is entirely subjective.  I’m sure these are all pleasant people and I’m trying to judge only their actions in these matters.

I also understand that if we were grading the chapters themselves, the IFCs, Panhellenics, or National Headquarters, they would likely be as low or lower.  But, this is about the administrators who chose the spotlight by making very public decisions.  

I would be very interested in your own grades, and the reasons behind them.  Here we go…

University of South Carolina
The Call:  Suspended fraternity recruitment almost immediately after it began, citing issues with underage alcohol consumption.
The Decider: Associate VP for Student Affairs, Jerry Brewer

What he did right:
  • Took a bold step that woke everybody up.
  • Held forums to listen directly to student concerns.
  • Made the recruitment ban temporary for most of the chapters.
What he did wrong:
  • Forgot that student ownership of an issue starts with acceptance and buy-in, not heavy-handed discipline.
  • In statements, sounded adversarial and condescending - an approach that is not going to get students or alumni to root for him.
  • Has failed to acknowledge cultural forces that impact the issue.  Will we ever see him suspend tailgating on football Saturdays?
Bottom-Line: Change needed to happen, but the top-down approach will likely mean results will be scarce.

The Grade:


Cornell University
The Call:  End pledging starting in 2012 and replace with better recruitment system.
The Decider: University President, David Skorton

What he did right:
  • I believe he’s right on the issue, since not only can fraternities and sororities survive just fine without pledging, it has been holding us back from recruitment practices that will launch us into the next era.
  • He set forward the vision, and then empowered students to develop the means.
  • He recognizes the value of the fraternity experience, and wants to see it grow and modernize.
What he did wrong:
  • His approach to the issue is too hazing-centric.  Of course, he was reacting to a student death.  However, pledging should be removed for other reasons as well, including the role it plays in creating cultures of apathy in Greek-letter organizations.
  • He could have empowered the students before going public, thereby not putting students on the defensive or in a reactionary mode.
  • How much  better would his op-ed in the New York Times have been if it had been co-written by the IFC/Fraternity Council President?
The Bottom-Line: If fraternity and sorority leaders accept the call to action, this could be the moment when their Greek system begins to rocket skyward.

The Grade:

Princeton University
The Call: Ban freshmen students from joining fraternities and sororities.
The Decider: University President, Shirley M. Tilghman

What she did right:
  • Enlisted a committee, including student representatives, to study the issue before taking the action.
What she did wrong:
  • Her comments, as well as those of her other administrators, make it sound as though she thinks 18-19 year-olds have the decision-making ability of a loaf of bread.
  • In a letter, she channeled her inner Dean Wormer by stating that the trustees  "if necessary, would be sympathetic to taking even stronger steps."  Tough talk to college students = lighter fluid on a BBQ pit.
  • Because Princeton doesn’t officially recognize fraternities and sororities, she is basically telling students: Hey freshmen, you’re not allowed to join these things we don’t recognize at all until you’re sophomores.  Understand? (This is the Ivy League, correct?)
  • She is aligning with helicopter parents and others who believe that the best way to prepare young adults for life is to seal them in a clear plastic hamster ball. 
The Bottom-Line: Eventually, the fraternities and sororities will realize that they do not need university recognition to be successful and become community-based organizations.  If so, watch them grow. 

The Grade: