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!

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Visual Values

I had the privilege recently - through my job at Kiwanis International - to travel to Fort Knox, Kentucky and visit the U.S. Army installation there.  Fort Knox houses all of the Army’s human resource and recruiting operations.  They also have a very strong education division, which is who we met with.  Anyhow, I had been there before, but this time I took notice of the stairs that led to their main offices:

The U.S. Army is very big on values. They are printed everywhere, and everyone at Fort Knox knows them. The primary values, as seen above, along with the Warrior Ethos, are what all soldiers take to heart.

More on the army in another post. The purpose of this one is to illustrate the power of visuals.  Like the Army, we are values-based organizations.  How visually evident is that fact?

For those of you with chapter facilities, how are the values represented on signs, banners or the walls? If I’m walking up the steps of your chapter house, can I see what I’m walking into?

And no, a white sheet hung outside your chapter house that says “rush XYZ, text #5555” is
not what I’m referring to.

At your chapter meetings, are there visual reminders of your values?  For those who use written agendas, are they stated on the paper?  The most effective nonprofit boards I know do this, or they hang up a sign at every meeting that states the organization’s mission.  It’s
powerful because during the most heated discussions, or those that seem like a waste of time, all members can point to the sign and say, “how are we achieving that right now?”

If you have a house, you can sprinkle references to your values all throughout.  It’s easy decoration, and creates a message that’s hard to escape.  Here’s an idea for a random morning: take a dry-erase marker and write on the bathroom mirrors, “how will you have integrity today?”

If you have a dining room, make table tents that share quotes/stories about your values.  At move-in day, when parents are likely to be at your house, make a huge banner that says something like: “this home is built on scholarship, service, brotherhood, and leadership.”  Get creative.

And of course, we have to discuss T-shirts.  What do yours say?  How does it remind the person wearing the shirt, as well as those who see it, of what you stand for?  T-shirts make us walking billboards, and too many times, our billboards turn people off to the product we’re selling. Instead, they can be a tremendous opportunity.

Several years ago, at a UIFI session, I vividly remember a young man standing up in front of the group and reciting his 
fraternity's creed, which spoke about being a perfect gentleman.  He did this while wearing a shirt that had a cartoon image of a man fleeing a half-naked woman lying in a bet, with the words: “XYZ Fraternity: We screw, we nut, we BOLT.”  

The moral of the story, visuals can be a force for good or evil.  Make yours a force for good.

Visuals matter because they remind our members of the values we strive for, they tell others the same thing, and they keep us honest about living up to them.  If you paint your steps with the same kinds of powerful words that the Army does, then in essence, you are making no secret of what I should expect when I walk inside.  Good. Now deliver.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Reality Fraternity

A big hat tip to Ellen Shertzer and her colleagues for a lunchtime conversation that inspired this post. It's their idea I have expanded upon.

I am a fan of reality TV for two primary reasons:  (1) as an observer of human nature it’s fun to watch some of these shows as a social experiment, and (2) escapist trashy TV can be fun.  

My wife likes The Bachelorette, and every once in a while I’ll catch some of it out of the corner of my eye as I’m passing through the ro...ahh...I admit I love it too.  It’s good TV.  Lots of drama, heroes, villains, and suspense.  Don’t judge.

The interesting thing about The Bachelorette is that the relationships formed on the show rarely work
out.  Most crash and burn.  But, it’s very obvious as to why.  When a suitor and the bachelorette go on dates on the show, it’s the stuff of romantic fantasies.  Helicopter rides.  Dining on rooftops.  Walks on the world’s best beaches.  Floating on yachts under tropical sun.  Everything is hyper-romantic and simply perfect.  And then, the season ends with a hilltop proposal and dancing until the sun comes up.  

A few months later, the perfect couple shows up again to reveal their status, and you can tell from their faces that it has gone South.  A big dramatic breakup typically comes shortly thereafter.  

The show creates impossible expectations for a romantic relationship.  Anyone who has been in a marriage or long-term partnership knows that it’s tough work sometimes.  There are no helicopter rides or moonlit dinners.  Those are replaced by the stuff of regular life.  It doesn’t mean that romance isn’t there - you just have to dig through reality to find it.

Perhaps there are lessons for fraternities here, especially in regards to how we promote and present ourselves to potential members.  Do we oversell the fraternity experience and our own organizations?  

I remember recruitment when I was an undergrad.  Every fraternity I met with claimed the best parties, and the strongest brotherhood.  Each one had the best house, greatest alums, and the tastiest food.  Strangely, each group had also won the previous year’s Greek Week (must have been a 15-chapter tie).  There was no shortage of trophies and awards to display.

And what about the chapters that rely on big splashy events for recruitment? They take recruits to amusement parks, sporting events, or turn their chapter houses into a Hooters franchise. Just like The Bachelorette paints love as wine and roses every day, these fraternities are painting a picture that fraternity life is a constant party. 

 We have an apathy problem in fraternities and sororities.  We also have a lot of dropouts.  I wonder if some of that can be attributed to the mismatch of expectations and reality.  If we create a lofty vision of the fraternity experience, but don’t deliver, why should we be surprised that people break up with us? And what's more, we're likely not attracting the right members by selling the superficial aspects. We get the party-lovers and then expect them to roll up their sleeves and work.

It’s about being authentic.  Represent yourself honestly, and you may be surprised by what you get in return.  Perhaps if The Bachelorette had a few episodes when the couples had to live for a few hours in a house with a screaming baby, or got lost on a drive together, they might be better prepared.  Perhaps if you weren’t shy about your faults as a fraternity, your new members would more likely embrace the experience.  Maybe your recruitment pitch should sound something more like this:

I want you to be a member of this fraternity.  But before you decide, there are some things you need to know.  We have a strong brotherhood, but not because we’re always laughing and having fun.  We fight sometimes.  We argue.  We disagree with each other a lot.  We are a strong brotherhood because we work through those things.   

You won’t like every guy in here.  Some you may actually dislike a lot.  But I can say with great confidence that there are a few future groomsmen and best friends in here as well.
We win Greek Week sometimes.  We lose more often.  Same with intramurals and homecoming competitions.  We don’t have as many trophies as the other guys, but I think we play a little harder.

You’ll need to work.  This house doesn’t clean itself.  There aren’t elves who show up in the middle of the night and cut the grass.  We do those things.  There will be dozens of times in which the state of this house will piss you off.  There are other times when you’ll be too lazy to do your duties, and that will piss us off.

Many of these guys will let you down.  They’ll make stupid decisions and leave you hanging. Many of us will disappoint you from time to time.  You may want to quit.  Or punch someone.  

But, if you find the lessons in each of those moments, you’ll be better.  If you learn understanding, then you’re on your way to mastering the greatest of leadership skills.  If you can learn to hold people accountable without being a jerk, then people will want to work for you some day.  

There may be a fraternity up the street that has only perfect parties, perfect meetings, and perfect sorority relations.  But perfect isn’t a very good teacher.  And, it’s an illusion anyway. 

If you’re willing to be vulnerable, to make mistakes, and to work hard, then you are well-suited to be in this fraternity.  Being a fraternity man isn’t easy, but nothing worthwhile in life ever is.  Just because we may not be the ideal fraternity doesn’t mean that signing this bid card won’t be the best decision of your life. 

And besides, if we were perfect, then we wouldn’t need you to make us better.
Highs and lows.  Joy and conflict.  Success and disappointment.  Terribly frustrating and tremendously fulfilling.

That’s the reality.