Mythic Leadership is a mini series which focuses on some of the great stories of human history, explaining the lessons learned as they apply to leadership in fraternity chapters and beyond. As a Greek man (ethnic/nationality – in addition to fraternity membership) I have a soft spot for these tales, but “Mythic Leadership” will expand beyond Greek Mythology and explore stories from a variety of civilizations.
The first entry hits on a topic I enjoy writing about: the value of mutual benefit in leadership. A great story to fit this concept is that of Athena versus Poseidon in the famed contest to determine the name of the city of Athens.
Athena Versus Poseiden
Towns, cities, and city-states would often adopt patron gods, to which they would offer tribute or worship in exchange for protection or well being. Upon its establishment, Athens had trouble determining which of the gods would best lead them to a prosperous future.
Among the most powerful of the Greek Gods are the Olympians, those which most of us know very well. Olympians include Zeus, Hera, Apollo, and many others, but two particular Olympians were at one point battling to win the favor of one of the most prominent city-states.
Although it was, according to the story, not yet named Athens, the city-state of Athens is known as the birthplace of true democracy, and it developed the most powerful navy among the city states. It was prosperous, a regional leader of vital importance to the Greek people, and home to the famed Acropolis.
When it came time to choose a patron god; however, the people of Athens struggled between Athena, daughter of Zeus (the king of sorts of the gods) and goddess of wisdom, handicraft, and warfare – and Poseidon, second in command after Zeus and god of the seas, earthquakes, and horses.
Both were well-revered, powerful gods, and both served as patrons for other villages, and so to overcome their indecisiveness the King of Athens, Cecrops, asked that the gods participate in a contest to see who could provide a gift of true value to the city-state.
Poseidon went first and he struck his mighty trident into the ground, which erupted with steam. From the split in the earth came a spring, but the water turned out to be salty and of no use to the Athenians.
For her turn, Athena too struck the ground with her spear, then planted an olive branch into the earth, which grew into an olive tree. The olive tree represents peace, but also prosperity – producing food, oil and wood for the people of the town.
Impressed by Athena’s gift, Cecrops selected her as the patron god of Athens, a decision which enraged Poseidon, who then cursed the city so that it would never have an adequate supply of fresh water. (Despite being situated in a wonderful place to establish a navy, Athens has historically suffered from a shortage of local freshwater).
Takeaways – Mythic Leadership
As a leader, always remember that it is up to you to earn the trust and support of your followers – without which you are merely another person acting alone and inefficiently. Leadership cannot be demanded, it cannot spring from threats, policies, or established hierarchy (Poseidon was after all Athena’s uncle and one of the most powerful gods) – it must be earned.
The greatest way to establish trust among one’s followers is to create opportunity to develop a relationship that is mutually beneficial and forward-thinking. Poseidon’s spring would have addressed the water-shortage of Athens, but Poseidon was consumed with an egotistical desire to demonstrate his strength as the god of the seas and earthquakes, and so what he produced was representative only of himself, and not his affection for the Athenian people.
The olive tree, on the other hand, was both symbolically and practically useful to the people of Athens, and it is all the more important that the goddess of wisdom, warfare and skilled craft produce something which advocates against deadly warfare and yet still provides for the people who depend on it. (Ares was the less honorable god of war who represented the more brutish elements compared to the honorable strategy and wisdom demonstrated by Athena). Much like our fraternities and sororities adopt symbols and values, the people of Athens adopted the values of Athena to apply to their collective future.
With this choice, Athens became a major power and prosperous city-state, and was essential in establishing a league of city-states capable of fending off threats from the militaristic Sparta and overbearing Persian empire. People will always choose to follow he or she who offers them respect and a good deal, and that’s something we must practice as fraternity leaders.
You may have been voted President of your chapter, alumni group, or national organization, but your position is not the basis for your authority or respect. Unless you came into your position through secretive, underhanded or coercive means, you were likely put into that position because you were deemed the best option by the people to help them. It is wise not to let the extent of your authority get the best of you – shortcuts are not an honorable means to lead.
It is important that you recognize as a leader that you use mandates and rules as last resorts – each of which comes with some form of threat attached. Lead by demonstrating what good can come of your ideas and you will be followed faithfully.
I should also note that the people of Athens still respected and offered tribute to Poseidon, even if he was not the one after which the town was named. Sailors would often pray to Poseidon before departing, and depending on the livelihood of individual people they may have offered tribute to any number of gods or goddesses for any number of reasons. Athena; however, was the one to which they entrusted their collective future and whose values they espoused as a city-state.
I post often about Checklist Leadership, how it distracts students from developing worthwhile chapter identities, how it encourages less selective recruitment, and how it fails on its promise of churning out leaders (read: good decision-makers) after college.
All that said, the only example of a reformed “standards” setup has been references to the changes my team at Delta Sig made to our Accreditation to reduce the number of “mandatory” items from 35 to 10 and to allow for greater freedom of choice for chapters to choose what they are recognized for.
Today I am testing out an exercise where I look at a fraternity/sorority campus community’s “Standards of Excellence” packet and suggest changes in line with greater self-government and niche development.
SJSU made their Standards of Excellence publicly available and easily found via a Google search (Thank you SJSU!), so we will be using theirs as a template. It is just as bloated and complex as the vast majority of campus/fraternity/sorority checklists, and so many of these suggestions will likely apply to your school/organization as well.
Below, you will find the SJSU Standards of Excellence along with two suggested sets of revisions.
Revisions Set 1 – Better Time Management – Objectives:
- Reduce the amount of time chapter officers spend putting together submissions
- Reduce the amount of time campus professionals and volunteers spend grading submissions (sometimes there are so many packets and so many items within each packet that campus professionals reach out to one another to help grade each others’ packets. . . for real – I’ve volunteered for 3 friends).
Revisions Set 2 – Better Overall Outcomes & Management – Objectives:
- The focus of submitted items is based on helping chapters find effective ways to address their goals and concerns
- Point qualifications are eliminated, instead, several items are selected as “Mandatory” and the rest are effectively used to help chapters define their niche and to determine any awards.
For the purpose of set 2, the “mandatory” items are those which typically contribute to a chapter’s closure – Retaining/growing membership – Risk Management – Financial Stability. Items related to those will be considered “mandatory.”
Keep in mind that SJSU requires that a chapter score a 1,300 to be “in good standing.” The issue is in the way the points are (or are not) weighted to stress the importance of what a chapter needs to function vs. what looks nice in a press release. I don’t care about your press release, I care about the outcomes of your fraternity experiences.
The Standards are presented in galleries. Feel free to click the images to get a better look.
Here we go!
“Scholarship” Revisions (Set 1: Time Sensitivity)
- Require an academic plan only if the chapter fails to meet the criteria in numbers 4, 5, 6, & 7 and make this a bonus item. (Academic plans can be copied from the internet and you need to focus your attention on the workings of chapters with poor planning. If they need help than inquire with their advisers, national office or other chapters for assistance, but a plan alone is worthless.)
- No suggestions for #2 & #3 – I’m not sure if there is another way to get this information, but at least it’s just bonus points. . . which goes to say that it’s ultimately irrelevant (See: Set 2)
- Combine #’s 4& 5 and Combine #’s 6 & 7 – The way they are currently set up means that chapters with strong GPA’s score well in numbers 4 & 6 and may get bonus points in 5 & 7, and that chapters with low GPA’s score well in 5 & 7 if they improve, but the room for improvement for high-performing chapters is limited, and so you’re selling them short.
- With newly combined 4/5 & 6/7, include or statements: An example: 20 points if the chapter meets/exceeds the All Campus GPA (why are you limiting them to being better than their gender? That’s silly) OR Chapter’s overall GPA (stop separating new members from initiates) improves by 0.15 or better OR Chapter maintains an overall GPA above a 3.0.
“Scholarship” Revisions (Set 2: Qualitative Reform)
- The only mandatory items should be their GPA performance.
- If the chapter underperforms then they should be required to take part in academic consultations the following year and submit their academic criteria and initiatives (read: not a “plan”).
- There should be one common set of standards for all members (new and initiated) based on their GPA and whether it meets a universal standard for the chapter.
“Chapter Education” Revisions (Set 1: Time Sensitivity)
- The Event Confirmation Form should be held on file and should include an agenda and the other requested information. There is no reason for a separate submission – chapters will just summarize things to meet the criteria.
- New Member Education Plan – Given the number of points here, and that chapters are required to reach 1,300 points to be in “good standing” I’d just recommend chapters copy & paste any new member education plan resource they can find on the internet to save them some time. The ones that write stuff up just to meet these points are likely doing that anyway.
- 3, 4 & 5 are completed by staff, no suggestions here
“Chapter Education” Revisions (Set 2: Qualitative Reform)
- Scrap the required elements of the Chapter Retreat. Request all other information as a part of the Event Confirmation Form & advise accordingly. – Remember: We’re going for something qualitative. Take note of red flags and address them, don’t make the haystack too large so that you miss red flags.
- Scrap the required elements of the New Member Education Plan: Instead, require that it abide by all campus and fraternity policies, or mandate that all chapters adopt certain requirements in their NME plan. You can still require that it be submitted, but use this as an opportunity to make sure it meets a simple, minimum standard – then offer suggestions for improvement.
- New Member Workshops & GREAT Sessions: I can’t comment on the standards themselves, but I would not make the “New Member Workshops” mandatory for the chapter to be in good standing – I might suggest that the expectation be that new members do not continue with their membership until they pass the required elements with an 80% or higher. As for the GREAT Sessions – Why stop at 80%? Just go to 100% and offer an excused absence policy. It’ll only take 20% of a chapter missing risk management information to get it shut down.
“Chapter Finance” Revisions (Set 1: Time Sensitivity)
- Accounting Procedures sound nice, but vary from treasurer to treasurer in practice – Request instead that the chapter provide proof of a zero-balance to its national office (if applicable), it’s landlord (if applicable) and the university (if applicable). If it owes any debts, THEN request that it submit its accounting practices, tools used, and any plan to recover the missing debt. Make this item a Bonus item (but mandatory for chapters in debt)
- Budget – Why? This stuff can be made up. The members need to know how their money is spent – it’s their money.
- Council Dues – The school/council should have on file which chapters owe debts. If there is a disagreement then require that the chapter provide receipts.
- University Funding – This should ultimately be eliminated, as it shouldn’t help a chapter get an award BECAUSE it utilized university funding.
- Apply the logic of University Debt to the rest of this section
“Chapter Finance” Revisions (Set 2: Qualitative Reform)
- The only mandatory item should be that the chapter owes no debts to the above-mentioned parties if applicable (national office, landlord, council, university). If the chapter owes no debts then all should be well.
- Perhaps it’d be helpful to request that information at the end of the fall term and then again at the end of the spring. If there is an issue at the end of the fall, then require that the chapter submit an accounting plan/budget/etc. as a part of this end-of-year packet. Let the adviser handle the rest.
“Chapter Management” Revisions (Set 1: Time Sensitivity)
- Advisor Relations can be handled with a phone call from the Campus Professional. The only reason this shouldn’t be the case is if the Campus Professional cannot be trusted, in which case they should be fired. A 2 minute phone call running through that checklist means time saved writing, reading, and storing the “letter.”
“Chapter Management” Revisions (Set 2: Qualitative Reform)
- If the chapter must abide by the school’s code of conduct then why require a separate one?
- Dates & Deadlines Compliance: Recognition paperwork should determine if a chapter is recognized, not a loss of 5 “points.” Hazing agreements should determine if a chapter can recruit members, not a loss of 5 “points.” . . . Catch my drift? Give your deadlines more meaning than a point deduction.
- Conduct/Policy Compliance Should Inform the rest of this section – Chapters with violations fail. Chapters without violations do not. Chapters with violations are required to submit relevant material or take part in other requirements (Say for example the GREAT Sessions).
- Meeting Attendance – Meetings do not indicate whether a chapter is successful. Limit the chapter’s voting rights or file a complaint with an HQ or adviser if a President fails to attend meetings, but don’t assume that a lack of attendance means a chapter is a failure. Make your meetings worth attending.
“Community” Revisions (Set 1: Time Sensitivity)
- Public Relations – Irrelevant. Screenshots of what? Everything they’ve posted? Pay attention to the chapter’s website and social media and flag anything inappropriate and address it then. Then “deduct points” if they receive a flag. What if a chapter has 10 members? You think managing a website and Facebook account are more important than meeting potential members face to face? It’s not.
- Campus Life, Alumni Involvement, Family Involvement – Event Confirmation forms (as previously mentioned) should be on file and marked off a checklist when they take place by the staff.
- Greek Community Relations – This information should all be kept by the staff and council officers – they should all be bonus points.
- Interaction with other chapters – Event form should already be on file.
“Community” Revisions (Set 2: Qualitative Reform)
- None of these should be mandatory outright. Instead, the chapter should be required to choose 3-5 out of the 9 to complete for points toward winning awards (not toward recognition).
- What is the goal of public relations and newsletters and why are they separate? A better way of putting this might be to combine them and then to explain how they promote their vision through their communication channels.
- Eliminate the service requirement of 60% attendance for 3 hours – A 60% at a 3 hour road cleanup is not the same as 60% at a 3 hour Habitat build, but they’d both be worth 50 points. Some chapters don’t care about this, so require that they host 2 events and explain the outcome of those events (50 pints of blood donated, 40 miles of road cleaned, 350 bedpans changed at the hospital, etc.)
- Should an event where alumni meet and talk with parents count for both categories? If not already, then yes.
“Leadership” Revisions (Set 1: Time Sensitivity)
- Event Confirmation Forms should already be on file.
- External Leadership Programs can mostly be confirmed by the council representatives or staff grading the packets. The chapter should receive a list of confirmed attendees and then be required to submit additional information if they don’t meet the 10% requirement.
“Leadership” Revisions (Set 2: Qualitative Reform)
- Transition Meetings: Keep the Confirmation Form – Require an Agenda along with the 3-5 items the chapter would like to focus on in the “Community” section rather than some bloated explanation of every thing they talked about. . . Let’s get to the outcomes and what the campus staff should be expecting to work with the chapter on for the following year. Chop! Chop!
- Campus Involvement/Leadership: Back in 2007/2008 our chapter made up the German Club on campus. They took over all 5 of the leadership positions and they’d watch a German film once each semester. More is required of a Chapter President than just about any other “President” on a college campus, and that doesn’t count toward this? Unnecessary. A fraternity experience is a worthwhile experience, stop demanding that student leaders overexert themselves. Otherwise this should simply be another optional submission under “Community” if it has nothing to do with the chapter itself
- There are elements of this which are unfair and unnecessary. The quality and instructions taught at each of the listed leadership programs (not including what may be provided by a chapter’s [inter]national organization – if applicable) will vary greatly, as will what each student takes away. Make this an optional submission under “Community.”
- Actually. . . just combine all of this with “Community” and move “Transition Meetings” to “Chapter Management”
The requirement of a binder is from 1980. Fraternity/Sorority staff could save everyone time (themselves included!) by calling the respective advisers and offices to the confirm the information requested here – assuming they are trusted to check boxes on a list.
The rest can be provided via binder, but why not open up the opportunity of a video (along with a written transcript)? Why do they need to meet with a staff member to help complete the packet? Is the packet more important than the outcomes? No. It isn’t. I answered that for you.
These are just one person’s recommendations to streamline, simplify, and add importance to one school’s admittedly representative “Standards of Excellence” program.
In all honesty, I’d rather they scrap all of this (and any “Fraternity/Sorority of the Year” award), require that a chapter abide by all university policies for all student organizations, and then advise each chapter in submitting whatever packet they need to submit to their national/international organization.
Completing 2 packets in a year is silly, and one of the BEST FRATERNITY/SORORITY ADVISERS I KNOW uses/used the above method. Have a great weekend!
I recently finished reading Chad Ellsworth’s (of Caped Coaching and a Theta Chi) book, “Building Up Without Tearing Down,” and it encouraged me to reflect on my experiences with hazing as a student, fraternity professional and now an alumnus.
Each year I find myself less compelled or moved by Hazing Prevention Week, and I think a large part of it has to due with its reliance on slacktivism (another anti-hazing banner. . . neat) or the fact that it is a time to charge top dollar for anti-hazing educators (another anti-hazing lecture. . . neat).
We know that people haze and that some people probably like the idea – but we do not have any legitimate counter-argument to compete against. Because of the manner in which deaths due to hazing occur, hazing prevention is in a stagnant place. Our responses are the same as they have always been:
- Condemn the behavior
- Draft a new policy
- Review or close the chapter
- Require anti-hazing lecture education
Deaths due to hazing have increased as we have passed more state laws and funded more anti-hazing organizations, speakers and coalitions, but that seems to be the only solution offered to the problem of dangerous hazing. What gives?
Part of the problem is probably that most deaths due to hazing are accidental as well as the widely reported statistic that most students who have been hazed in college were or are unaware that they were hazed. We have painted this beautiful gray area around hazing so that, for example, any mention of the words “scavenger hunt” is immediately shut down without really explaining what would or would not qualify as a hazing event.
The scariest element of dangerous hazing activities is that many accelerate from innocuous to dangerous over a period of a few years, often in secret, and become deadly because the chapter is operating in a form of crisis mode (as are their national organizations and campus professionals). No one, I repeat, “No One,” makes effective decisions in crisis mode.
So – here are some thoughts for chapter officers, chapter advisers, and general members to nudge their chapters away from these dangerous trends. (I admit that they may not well serve a chapter with a well-established hierarchy and hazing ritual to prevent an accidental death this fall term.)
Chapter Officers: Institutionalize & De-Escalate
Your job as a chapter officer is to create simple, well-rehearsed, and well-recorded processes for new member education. Here’s what I mean:
- Determine what defines the way your chapter makes decisions. If someone suggests something outside of this vision then use that as a means to discredit the suggestion.
- Demonstrate by example: While I was chapter president and a senior member of our chapter I’d often sit with our new members, offer them important positions, and would emphasize that they needed to consider what they wanted the chapter to be and that my job was to help get them there. Disregard the hierarchy and tradition – few will actually challenge you (if they do then your chapter is, unfortunately, in legitimate risk).
- Identify some brothers who understand what it means to educate new members and ask that they be present during new member meetings, that they help new members complete objectives, and that they serve as big brothers. Your education plan should prepare new members to be members of the chapter – nothing more and nothing less. Expect the same thing of all members (new and initiated) and let that determine whether a man/woman is ready to initiate.
- Don’t waste effort getting hazers to recruit. You know the members who never come to anything and somehow expect the most out of new members? Yeah, let them stay home during recruitment. . . and ritual . . . and don’t tell them when parties are happening.
- Reach out to your national fraternity office, your campus professional, and representatives from your umbrella organization to enact legitimate anti-hazing reform.
Chapter Advisers: Offer Alternatives & Explanations
Too often a chapter adviser will say “No” to something, suggest that it is or can be construed as hazing, and end the conversation. That is a wonderful way to make students feel discredited, unappreciated, and as if they are a nuisance. The key to advising is building trusting relationships, so consider the following when working to eradicate hazing:
- Reason with chapter officers that expectations of new members should prepare them for expectations of brothers. Why is it a good thing for new members to run every morning but suddenly unimportant for initiated members to understand the health and discipline benefits? Focus on persuasion rather than coercion or lecturing. Ask them to better explain what they are trying to do.
- Provide alternatives to what exists within Greek Life. Look toward orientation practices of companies and nonprofits and share that information with your chapter officers. Do this throughout the year so as to prepare for following years and so that you are not over-communicating.
- Be present if you can at new member meetings, chapter meetings, recruitment meetings and ritual ceremonies. Pay attention to how members talk about new members, how they talk about potential members, what they look for in potential members and whether or not they take ritual seriously. Identify which brothers raise red flags.
- Be the example for your executive board. Sit with the new members, invite them to lunch or dinner, and show brothers what it means to care about and respect their future friends for life. If you want to get rid of the hierarchy then do it yourself. You will inspire members to follow suit.
- Ask new members if they understand what is expected of them when they are initiated. If they can’t come up with a clear vision of what it means to be a member of the chapter, you know the education is ineffective and can use that to push reform.
- Reach out to your national fraternity office, your campus professional, and representatives from your umbrella organization to enact legitimate anti-hazing reform.
You can get a great idea of what I’ll say here based on what is listed above. You may not have the power to change the rules of the chapter, how it conducts new member education or whether or not hazing occurs, but you can make it wildly uncomfortable for your chapter to continue to haze.
- Set the example and disrupt tradition – As mentioned above, do what you can can to disrupt needless hierarchies. Sit with new members, talk them up, help them study, learn about who they are and share the great things you’ve learned with other initiates. You can encourage other members to care more deeply for the well being of each new member.
- Use the legislative process – In my Junior year I requested changes to a test we made all new members participate in after witnessing several members demonstrate some worrisome behavior (yelling, throwing chairs, fake slapping people, etc.). By vote of the chapter, we limited the event only to senior members in good standing and the executive board and we changed the questions to be factual and relevant to our experience. It was a small step aimed at preventing a slippery slope.
- Tell on your chapter early. In Chad’s book he details a hollowing experience of reading a letter he wrote to the university vice president detailing the chapter’s hazing practices aloud in front of his brothers. You may join a chapter where the situation is already terrible, and I can’t speak to your experience (I’m sorry), but if you are noticing that things are veering in the wrong direction then share this post with members, officers and advisers who agree with you and explain the specific situation as to why you are sharing it.
- Reach out to your national fraternity office, your campus professional, and representatives from your umbrella organization to enact legitimate anti-hazing reform.
I frequently comment on the North American Inter-Fraternity Conference, whether that be suggesting the umbrella group go co-ed  or noting that their response to an Atlantic article comparing fraternities to gangs was elitist and regressive . I still think those and many things about the NIC and it’s leaders’ determination to transform it into a governing organization (It is not), but I’ve pledged to be a little nicer and proactive – so here it is.
The organization recently announced a coalition with HazingPrevention.org, The Association of Fraternity/Sorority Advisors (AFA), The Association of Fraternal Leadership & Values (AFLV – technically also AFA, but whatever), and four families of fraternity men to prevent hazing. The three-point plan includes:
- Pursue state-based anti-hazing legislation that delivers greater transparency through stronger hazing reporting requirements, strengthens criminal penalties and encourages prosecution, calls for university accountability for bad actors, provides amnesty to encourage people to call for help, and calls for student education.
- Expand awareness and intervention education, including providing a platform for the parents to speak to tens of thousands of college students.
- Engage fraternity and sorority members in educating high school students to confront hazing and bullying.
Sounds great – I am all for more collaborative efforts with parents and less pandering to campus administrations – which are demonstrating complete disregard for the fraternity experience . Better yet, this makes for some great news: the people ultimately suing and garnering TONS of earned news media about their disdain for hazing are now working with fraternities to stop it.
Still, I have my reservations about the coalition. It has nothing to do with the coalition itself, only its methods to address the hazing issue. Support for the REACH Act should be nixed entirely. If states want to bundle together some already illegal things and make them more illegal then whatever, but we should not require that colleges/universities, fraternities or taxpayers shell out additional money for woefully ineffective educational programming .
Here are three things I think should be considered along with links to corresponding posts which go into depth (in case you are curious and have an extra 5 minutes which, let’s be honest, you definitely do).
- Reform Fraternity Insurance: The manner in which fraternities insure their chapters politicizes the investigative/closure process, impedes the ability of students to understand the policies to which they agree to, requires that excellent chapters provide an unnecessary lifeline to wealth-producing, but risky, chapters, and creates a giant pot of gold which appeals to anyone with the mind to file a lawsuit. Decentralize insurance. 
- Start Reporting Hazing Statistics Now: Let’s face it, the NIC’s lobbying efforts are a failure. We were all told that the Collegiate Housing & Infrastructure Act (CHIA) had multi-partisan support to pass and that we “only needed tax reform” to get it done. Well, tax reform came and went and CHIA is all but a distant memory. Instead, partner with colleges/universities, many of which endorse the REACH Act, to start reporting these statistics now. It isn’t leadership for Penn State to endorse legislation requiring all schools report this information – it would be leadership for Penn State (among others) to set the example. What are they waiting for? More tax subsidies?
- Advocate For Free Association By Ending Checklist Leadership: Fraternities, sororities, and their campus communities often enforce lengthy, time-consuming checklists they call “standards,” but these standards do little to benefit the fraternity experience. In fact, the sheer size and quantity of expectations encourages chapters to eschew quality-control and niche development in favor of manpower. 
That’s it: nice and simple, right? I can certainly suggest more, but these three things are all within the power of the members of the coalition to make happen. Their current priorities are not – think about it:
- Legislation requires lobbying, which takes time and dollars away from interacting with students – who ultimately determine whether or not dangerous hazing continues underground.
- Presenting to students is great, but we have been presenting to them for dozens of years with little to show for it.
- Getting students to talk to high schoolers – same premise. I remember being in high school and we laughed our asses off at the speakers who would come to us if they were the least bit unprepared, overly scripted, or weird. That is a punishing audience.
The coalition is great in its concept, but it relies too heavily on others to act for anything to change. We can change how we are insured, we can change how we report statistics, and we can influence what qualifies for “standards” and why generic, catch-all checklists impede the progress of the fraternity experience.
If we can do so much without begging the government or high schoolers for favors, why don’t we simply add them to the list?
I was lucky to be hired to my fraternity staff in the midst of a sort of renaissance for Delta Sigma Phi Fraternity, an experience which mimicked the conditions under which I joined my chapter. In both cases, I signed on after a period that others remember as somewhat chaotic. In both cases, I joined due to the inspiring visions of determined leaders with clear objectives.
Joining A “Fraternity of the Year”
I pledged to Delta Sig at Stetson University in the fall of 2007 – just months after they earned themselves a Pyramid of Excellence (our fraternity’s top award) and “Fraternity of the Year.” Just a couple years prior the chapter would have been considered an “unranked challenger” in any competitive match up of fraternities.
After being disbanded in 1998 due to movie-like misbehavior, the Fraternity re-established the chapter in 2002 and the group was re-charted in 2004. Those early years were tough: The chapter was relatively small, very few alumni returned to assist in its redevelopment, and there was little guidance from the national organization (a fact which remained true until my junior year).
The students were determined to improve their position, and so a series of leaders took it upon themselves to transform the struggling chapter into a top tier organization within the national fraternity. To do that, they didn’t pitch to potential members what was great about themselves; they sold what could be great with the addition of certain men at Stetson. From around 2005-2007, the chapter underwent a massive transformation.
Rather than talk about their trophies, the men of Delta Sig at Stetson at that time period set an ideal of what they wanted to be and they sold that ideal to incoming members. Still, success often comes with an ego-boost, and without teaching that process to the younger members the chapter would ebb and flow between success and failure in the years which followed.
The Fraternity Staff
The man who visited our chapter to take its charter in 1998 was a member from the early 90’s named Paul who had at the time worked at the national office, then left to serve as the Executive Director of Triangle Fraternity, and then was brought back to the national staff as the Assistant Executive Director for Delta Sig in the mid-2000’s.
The national fraternity was not in much of a better position than our chapter in the early 2000’s. Politics had overwhelmed the organization’s activity, changes to the member manual and an alcohol-free housing policy were extremely unpopular, and a search for a new CEO failed. . . twice.
The Fraternity then hired a young (24-25 years old) consultant to serve as its Executive Director under the guidance of the board. He – as I was told – spent his early years visiting chapters himself to collect dues that the national office had otherwise been unable or neglected to collect. I’ve met many of the people from this era, and I can assure you that the situation did not arise out of incompetence (they are all successful in their own right), but perhaps due to too many competing influences and the political games to which governing organizations often succumb.
In any case, Scott (the Executive Director) and Paul offered me a position to the fraternity staff in 2010. I was planning to pursue physical therapy, but the interview process alone sold me on the idea of traveling the country and helping other men find Delta Sig as I had three years prior. We recently initiated a partnership with Phired Up Productions, whose teachings I had successfully implemented in my chapter since Josh Orendi’s visit to Stetson in 2009.
I knew the tools were in place to succeed, and the idea of growing the fraternity and learning from some fantastic mentors excited me. We ended up putting together one of the most successful fraternity growth programs in the country.
Getting People To Pay For Something They Must Then Build
That is the challenge of recruiting founding fathers to a fraternity chapter. They will often have tepid alumni support, they may have tepid campus support (there are a lot of checklists fraternity professionals need to focus on), and the people who recruit them will within several weeks be hundreds or thousands of miles away and unable to help.
What encourages men to start a fraternity chapter then? Simply put it was whether or not we could inspire them to daydream about what their legacy could be in creating Delta Sigma Phi at ___________ college/university.
We would visit sorority chapters and ask whether or not the fraternity could use more and better men. The answer was almost always a resounding “YES PLEASE GOD YES!” We would then ask them to recommend high-caliber men to start such an experience. The rest of the recruitment process is quickly and neatly summarized in [here].
We would ask all kinds of students, including random strangers we met in cafeterias, what they felt was lacking from campus life or from the fraternity community. Students at Wittenberg spoke of bubbles and students at Loyola spoke of greater community engagement. It would become clear within the first week of an expansion campaign what we needed to focus on to carve out a unique message at any particular school or what was not being accomplished by the existing fraternity community.
Even the other fraternities/sororities would contribute: Texas State’s IFC asked us specifically to work to improve the overall fraternity GPA.
With these ideals in mind, we would ask potential members whether or not they were up to the challenge. Without a house, without big recruitment events, and without a bunch of trophies we were able to establish chapters of 25-90+ men (though we found that setting up a new chapter with more than 70 people is overkill).
Look at which chapters are dominating Delta Sig’s awards and there are often two consistent variables: The chapter either has phenomenal advisory support AND/OR the chapter was established within the past 10 years. The reasons are simple: Great advisers keep chapters on track through member transitions and the newer chapters were still hungry for success and recruiting members based on the ideals of what they wished to accomplish.
A member of that Texas State chapter just became one of the two undergraduate members of our Grand Council, for example.
In that same logic, new chapter would often plateau or fall into trouble shortly after they focused their attention on fitting in with the other fraternities at their institution. This would occur either because the recruiters or early members failed to instill a shared vision into subsequent classes of new members.
A Specific Example
I focused all of my efforts as a staff member on promoting niche development within chapters even after I stopped serving as a recruiter. It works in business, it works in politics, and it works in fraternity. Defining what you want to be and how you want to get there is the key toward attracting talent interested in working toward those aims. That is common sense, but it is not how fraternity chapters are compelled to recruit.
Part of that is due to the formal recruitment model, which turns the membership process into an assembly-line-style, mass produced mess of frills. The other part is due to our checklist standards. Both of which promote the idea of growth at all costs, and both of which give fraternities little incentive or space to define what makes them unique (“Best Brotherhood On Campus!” is so common because personalities are the only unique trait about most fraternity chapters – which is why big personalities are prized possessions).
At Oglethorpe University our expansion campaign was hampered from the moment our recruiters stepped on to campus. A change in the professional fraternity adviser meant that things we had agreed to in the spring were no longer the case in the fall. What was meant to be 4 weeks of recruitment turned into 1 day when the IFC jealously determined that we could only invite members to join on the final day of those 4 weeks of getting to know people.
The result was a chapter of about 12 men, which declined to 7 within a year. It was at this point that I was assigned to the chapter as their national consultant. That was never my full-time job, but I would often be asked to work with chapters who would benefit from additional tender love and care. I ignored our national playbook and the chapters were better off for it.
We started by reflecting on what the members were: hungry for success, leaders/athletes, and many were international students. Oglethorpe is a tiny school, about 1,000 students, and it has an oversized representation of international students. The men determined that what was lacking in the fraternity community were committed campus leaders and diversity, and so the chapter focused its efforts on building itself into the diverse, high-achieving fraternity.
Within a year the chapter’s size climbed to 20+ men, all by limiting what they are about. It is a common theme: focusing and reducing the clutter around your purpose will enable you to achieve exceptional growth. By the next year they hit 30 men, their members were leaders in a wide variety of student organizations, and many came from outside of the United States.
In terms of our fraternity’s values of Culture, Harmony, and Friendship: the Oglethorpe chapter was an ideal representation.
This didn’t come about because of my advice or because the chapter picked some core values to plaster all over everything. It occurred because defining who they were, pursuing those types of men, pitching the idea of what their chapter could be, and catering all of their events (read: not just rush events) to the type of men they wanted to recruit was more beneficial than the other fraternities’ trophies, chapter houses, or reputations.
Build your niche based on who your members are and what they want to be. It is okay if the men you have today are not a representation of what you would like to be in 2 years as long as they are committed to getting there.
Developing consistent recruitment pipelines (a service-oriented chapter recruiting from service organizations, for example) is the key toward long term success. Even if your chapter revisits or adjusts its niche every 2-3 years, the value is having a clear, decisive direction. You want men to be able to picture themselves as a part of your chapter, so paint a picture of the type of experience they can expect when joining.
I’m reminded of the video below. A chapter brother made it for our IFC, and it is applicable well beyond that particular year. Although these weren’t necessarily the niches of each fraternity at our school, it does get to the heart of why men join a chapter: potential members need to be able to envision themselves as a part of your fraternity, and that’s easier to do when they know exactly what your fraternity is about.
This is why we created the “Elevation” section of our accreditation when I had the chance to reform it as a staff member. The goal was to encourage chapters to let us know what they wanted to be known for, and to receive credit for better defining their niche.
The sun was setting on the final day of my final Homecoming weekend as a student member of my fraternity. After spending hours baking in the Florida heat I decided to head back into our chapter house to change and prepare to escort some alumni into town for drinks.
Just before entering the door to the house I heard an unfamiliar voice say, “So you’re the one taking my job.” I had announced during our joint meeting earlier that day that I would be working for our national fraternity. I could not tell if he was serious – he had stopped working there long before I had been hired – but he had a determined, kind of scary expression on his face. “I guess so,” I said.
“The only thing that you will learn is that AX [our chapter’s “designation”] is the only thing that matters. That national stuff is bullshit,” he said. I cannot remember how I replied, only that it involved a cautious smile, a half-hearted laugh, and something along the lines of, “sure,” before walking inside. In my four years as a student I had committed fully to the cause of “fraternity,” as they say, and I knew that the national organization was very important.
I attended every program I had the opportunity to attend, poured most of my free time into every element of our chapter life, and burned a bridge or two in what I hoped was the process of setting our chapter up to be better off once I had left. This guy was just another one of those men who blame the national fraternity for their problems, I thought, and the moment was out of my mind by the time I finished my first whiskey with pickle juice.
I have love for my brothers at Stetson and across the country – many of which I worked with to establish, re-establish, or propel their respective chapters – but I grew out of any sort of allegiance to “the fraternity” as I came to understand the history and trajectory of the fraternity experience and the political scaffolding behind our current governing organizations.
My fraternity consists of men like Dallas, who reluctantly joined at the request of his girlfriend, promised me that he would not be involved, then later became Chapter President and joined our national office staff. There is John, easily the most intimidating student I have ever tried to recruit, and there is Vince, who I kept running into at national events while we were students and later worked with for much of my early professional life.
I recently visited our chapters at IUPUI and The Ohio State University to present on our history and ritual. I helped establish those chapters in the 11-12 academic year and felt as if I were returning to my home chapter at Stetson. That feeling didn’t come from our wearing the same letters, but from knowing many of those men personally and the desire to spend time exploring our fraternity together.
The key to making the most of a fraternity membership is to build trusting relationships.
That simple understanding often gets lost in the world of fraternity checklists. It is easy to demand more policies, more lectures, and higher dues as a fraternity man today than to advocate for more on-the-ground support and conscious use of student dollars. It is far easier to promote a suspension of a fraternity community as a progressive, preventative step than to talk directly with the students and persuade them to pursue a different course.
It is too easy to confuse those who demand control with those who know how to lead, and too easy to suggest that students are incompetent without our intervention.
Each fraternity man or woman swears an oath identical to that of any other member of that same fraternity or sorority, but each oath means something entirely different to each initiating member.
When an oath becomes nothing more than a bully tactic because our we are too concerned with what others think of us then members will pull away. Fraternity is nothing without friendship, and too many of our leaders demand loyalty to their impression of their oath without putting in the work to persuade others of its value. It’s a shame, because the daily decisions of our students determine our fate – not the myriad of fraternity structures that alumni have created to try to manage said student.
A common dedication to one another is the national fraternity experience, not some incorporated, 501(c)(7) organization in a far away town. You did not join a fraternity to be a nameless contribution to someone else’s research project or to complete a checklist aimed at fixing you. You joined because you liked the people and you felt it a good use of your time to spend it with them.
To be clear – that member who accosted me as I walked into the chapter house was wrong. My national fraternity is not bull[corn] – it is a gateway to an even greater and more impactful fraternity experience for me and thousands of other men (of all ages). That being said, if that gateway is used to exert control, rather than to fortify friendships, its true value is corrupted and it will be abandoned.
My fraternity, like yours, was established without a national organization, a campus professional or the NIC, and it can continue on without those things. Understanding that is the key toward offering lifelong value to our members.
Growing out of elementary school does not mean you grow out of elementary habits. Adults can be crazy and selfish people, and we occasionally take pride in ridiculing others. It can feel good to make others feel bad about what typically makes them feel good (even if it makes them feel good because they make others feel bad).
With every publicized shooting comes a flurry of often-repeated tweets. Some call for gun control. Some call for culture control. Some offer thoughts and prayers…
Some ridicule those who tweet their demands for gun control into the server-sphere. Some ridicule those who defend the right to own and bear arms. Lately, many people have ridiculed those who offer “thoughts and prayers” in these trying times – often suggesting that thoughts and prayers do not result in progress. It is understandable to shame those who tweet, “thoughts & prayers,” and then go on snapping photos of their Ahi Tuna Supreme Salad, but it is a shame to ridicule “thoughts and prayers” themselves. Here’s why:
Every action stems from an intention. If you think about eating a sandwich you may very well make a sandwich and eat it and if you want to make lifelong friends in college you may join a fraternity.
Not every intention turns into action, and not every action brings about the desired intention. Viagra was meant to be a heart medication, but a more desirable use was found for the drug. Fraternity men initially seek friendship and camaraderie, but are eventually required to take part in a curriculum of checklists to prove to the world that they are better than everyone else.
Still, the value of thoughts and prayers is that they imply that someone is taking time to set intentions and to frame their way of thinking around living or acting in a certain way. You may drive on the road and never notice that Jeep Wrangler owners wave to one another, but take a ride in a Wrangler and you will actively notice every other Wrangler on the road and whether or not the other driver offers the “Jeep Wave,” a kind of salute for. . . I don’t know. . . buying the same style of vehicle?
What I mean to say is that setting intentions frames the things you notice throughout your day. Praying to cure an illness may not present an immediate solution, but consistent thought and prayer toward that end may result in you taking notice of an article you would otherwise ignore. The concept of prayer, speaking to a God who may or may not be listening to what your saying, is valuable even in the case that you are merely talking to yourself before bed or dinner.
Whether you are religious or not, taking time in your day to set intentions or reflect upon your feelings and actions holds value. It may come in the form of journaling or taking an hour a week to study the internet to find solutions to the problems at the top of your mind. More importantly, thinking and praying about things which are important to you may help you uncover which of your actions are inhibiting your progress.
For example, at the start of 2018 I thought I would spend this year focusing more on my health, wealth and friendships. Those are wide-ranging topics (wealth includes a wealth of knowledge, for example). I began saying a quick prayer before bed (rituals are comforting) and would then repeat those three intentions before falling asleep. However; when my travel season picked up in June I started to skip my little ritual.
A domino-effect kicked in. Forgetting to exercise while on the road carried into my home life – as did eating out, forgetting to call my parents, and procrastinating on developing my career. In the final weeks of August I recalled what I had promised to do at the start of the year and set an intention one night to creep back on track – and I have gotten back into the habits and rituals I set out to do at the start of 2018.
So, do not dismiss thoughts and prayers – they are essential to action. Perhaps you do not believe that someone’s thoughts or prayers are resulting in effective solutions, and that makes sense, but why tarnish the value of thinking, journaling, meditating or praying for yourself? The way you speak influences the way in which you act, and not everyone is interested or willing to debate with strangers all of the time.
Maybe your thoughts or prayers will result in a solution no one had previously thought to suggest.
I’ll dedicate this post to Brother Manly, who is a great friend, was a great roommate, and remains an inspiring human. Additionally he is an advantageous Call of Duty co-op partner, though I was better at Mario Kart. Also I am fairly certain he misses his Wrangler and the friendly waves from strangers on the road.