A Chapter President’s First 25 Days

As chapter president, you likely ran for your position with priorities and goals in mind. Thus, your term might be defined by how well you achieve these objectives. And with only a year, the clock is ticking.

During the recent U.S. presidential election and in the days hence, much has been made of what the new Commander in Chief will do in his first 100 days. This is a common talking point for candidates and an easy way to frame the most urgent priorities perceived by the soon-to-be president.

So, it’s a useful exercise to think about how you – as the new chapter president – will make use of the first few days of your “administration.”

For sake of discussion, let’s consider the first 25 days (since a chapter president has only 1/4th of the term of the U.S. President). What are you going to do in your first 25 days? Not considering holiday breaks, perhaps it could be mapped out this way:

Days 1-5: Assemble the officers and build trust within the group.
Your officer team is the team you have the most influence over, and who has the most influence over you in return. This is also the “management team” or “leadership team” for the chapter, and hence, its judgment and decisions require a high degree of trust and respect. If you pay attention to the early development of this team, and keep attention on this, the rest of your year will be smoother. Some best practices might include:

  • As soon as possible after the election, take the group to dinner to celebrate and immediately start to build some bonds.
  • Hold a 2-3 hour teambuilding retreat. Use a leadership styles assessment or tool like Strengthsfinder to increase awareness of each other’s leadership tendencies. Set some group expectations for how the officer team will work together.
  • At the retreat or a different setting, invite the officers to share with each other their campaign promises or goals, and which ones were most important to them. Lay them all out and begin discussions on how to prioritize the list.

Days 6-10: Assess the fraternity for needs and challenges.
In order to lead effectively, you need a better understanding of what your chapter needs. Who better to tell you than the members themselves? Plus, you can get feedback from other stakeholder groups, including advisors, campus and headquarters professionals, and council leaders. If you offer the opportunity for others to give voice to the direction of the chapter, they will likely get on board faster with your goals and priorities. Some best practices might include:

  • Do an online survey to members asking them to evaluate the current state of the fraternity, and to provide their assessment of where it needs to go. The consolidated report of this data becomes the perfect launching pad for your officer team to use for goal-setting.
  • Set up listening sessions. Ask each officer to set aside a time for members to give them verbal input into the state and direction of the chapter. Perhaps do this around meal times. Then, the officers can get together to share notes.
  • You as president should take on a special task – individual outreach to “lost members.” Choose five or so disengaged members who you think could offer value to the chapter and set up times for coffee or lunch to chat with each person individually. Find out why they disengaged and what the chapter should be doing to keep members involved.

Days 11-15: Officer team establishes the annual priorities for the chapter.
Now that you’ve done the assessment phase, it’s time to gather the officer team back together to download the information. Look for patterns and themes. Invite officers to each share the greatest insight they gained from their listening sessions and/or the survey data. It will all come together to reveal the biggest areas of need for the chapter. Combine these with the goals that the officers had as candidates and the priorities for the year should start to take shape. Best practices might include:

  • Use the following framework (Start-Stop-Continue) to help guide the discussion:
    • What things should we START doing, since adding them to our chapter would make a difference in its effectiveness and success.
    • What things should we STOP doing, since they no longer offer value to the chapter, the members don’t like them, or they are actively inhibiting our success.
    • What things should we CONTINUE doing, since they are positive aspects of the chapter, the members like them, and are contributing to our success.
  • Aim for a number to start with – say 5-8 priorities – to help you move the work along. It’s not a good idea to do more than that, since a year goes fast. It’s better to focus on a few big wins for the chapter and work harder to achieve those.
  • Under each priority, establish 3 goals that influence that priority. For example, if the priority is recruitment, 3 goals might include (1) grow the chapter by 10% this year, (2) challenge each member to introduce 5 potential new members to the chapter this year, and (3) redesign all marketing pieces to reflect our values and official brand.

Days 16-20: These priorities are tested by sharing them with the general membership, the chapter and campus advisors, and national office staff. They are then finalized.
A great way to gain buy-in is the initial assessment stage you already conducted. Another great way is to go back to those stakeholder groups with your list of priorities to make sure you heard them correctly. Share them at a chapter meeting and invite discussion. Send them to your national office and ask for feedback within a week’s time. Meet with your Greek advisor and review the priorities with him/her. After this is done, gather your officers back together and settle on a final list of priorities.


Days 21-25: Committees (including the officer team) are tasked with executing particular priorities.
So now you have your priorities and the goals that will achieve those priorities. It’s time for action. Determine as an officer team which priorities are most relevant for which committees in the chapter. Obviously the recruitment committee would take on any that deal with recruitment. The Ritual committee might be best for those that deal with the culture of the chapter and issues of values. Big new initiatives might be best held by the officer team itself, or a short-term task force can advance them forward. The first step for each committee is to add any goals they think are necessary for the priority they have been given. Next, they should add in up to 5 tasks underneath each goal that the committee can undertake to achieve it. The chapter president and vice president can sit in on these initial discussions to make sure the spirit and integrity of the priorities are upheld.


There you go. Now, you have 340 days left to make these priorities, goals, and tasks become real. If goals are achieved early, the officer team can revisit the priorities halfway through the year, and add a couple more

What you do in your first 25 days can set a powerful tone for your term. Whether you follow the framework above or develop your own, be intentional, focused, and driven. If you aren’t, you might blink and find yourself standing in your final 25 days, wondering how it all moved so fast.

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)

First Graduate, Then Initiate

I am an advocate for eliminating pledging from the fraternity experience - an idea that gets a lot of opposition whenever it gets raised.  Undergraduates and alumni alike seem to really like the idea of pledging, and most seem to consider it a critical element of fraternity life.  I still don’t like it, but if we need to have it, let’s make the most of it.

What if, instead, we doubled-down on pledging?  If it is truly a critical piece - the preparatory period for a young adult to learn how to live the values of the fraternity/sorority - then let’s not leave it to just 4, 6, or 8 weeks.  What about 4 years instead?  I’m not joking.

What if fraternity and sorority members weren’t officially initiated into their fraternity or sorority until the day after they graduated from college?  That’s right - undergraduate students would be “pledging” their organization for the length of their undergraduate years (or at least from whatever point as an undergrad they accept their bid for membership).

Graduating seniors would go to commencement, walk across the stage, flip the tassel, have a nice lunch with family and friends, and then head over to the chapter house for the initiation Ritual.

Here are some intriguing benefits of such an idea:
  • If everyone in the undergraduate chapter is a “new member” or “pledge,” then the power dynamic of pledge vs. active is removed.  All are striving towards the same goal: initiation.
  • Undergraduate members would learn the values and expectations of the organization, and their initiation could be contingent on how well they lived those values during their college years.  Perhaps someone could not be initiated unless their peers and advisors vouched for their character.  The deadbeat Seniors would drift away and would never be allowed into full membership.
  • Fraternities and Sororities could set a GPA requirement for initiation that takes the entire 4-5 undergraduate years into account.
  • Once initiated, the recent graduates would receive information on getting involved in a young professionals chapter of their organization in the city/town to which they relocate.  And, the excitement of initiation could mean they are more inspired to be involved as a recent alum.
  • If it turns out a particular fraternity isn’t a good fit - there is more flexibility to change one’s mind.  If I accept a bid to one sorority as a freshman, but then discover as a sophomore that another sorority is more congruent with my values, then I move on.  No letter to the headquarters promising that I won’t divulge secrets would be required.  Does that make you nervous that people would be jumping from org to org in a chaotic fashion?  What are you afraid of?  Shouldn’t we embrace the goal of matching personal values with organizational values, no matter how long it takes to figure that out?
  • Because of that same flexibility, national fraternities/sororities would be more accountable for providing a quality experience.  In a way, they would need to make the case to the undergrads for four years that the fraternity or sorority is something to be proud of.
Of course the idea isn't perfect.  Would uninitiated men and women be interested in operating an organization they aren't fully members of?  Maybe the friendship and fellowship would still be enough of a draw to make that happen.  Many other issues would need to be worked out.  However, member apathy, hazing, and alumni engagement are perpetual problems we have no bold answers for.  Maybe there is a solution to be found in waiting until a young person experiences one of the proudest moments of their life - graduation - before they receive an experience equally as profound - their fraternity initiation.

(This post has been updated since its original post date of 10/11/2011)