Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Going for Gold (or actually, Green)

I absolutely love the Winter Olympics. Cool stories, a fun study in geography, and strange but interesting sports. When else does ski jumping, curling, and slopestyle become prime time viewing? 

I noticed something different during the figure skating competitions this time. While the athletes were skating, little green, yellow, and red boxes appeared by their name. These indicators measured how well the skaters would perform the technical aspects of their routines. Here is how the website Thrillist describes it: 

The technical score [of a figure skating routine] is determined by a panel of judges gauging how well things like spins, jumps, footwork, transitions, and other elements are executed in real time. Each element is worth a certain "base" score (the more difficult the move, the higher its base score), and essentially, judges assign an overall technical score by adding up the scores of all successfully completed maneuvers. 

So, how do judges know what maneuvers to look out for...Well, each competitor has to submit the plans for their skate -- sequentially -- ahead of time. Accordingly, each gray box you see before an athlete starts their program represents a technical element they intend to execute. The different colors indicate how well they pulled off a specific technical component.

If the skater has successfully completed a move, the box will turn green. If the skater didn't successfully pull it off, it'll turn red. A yellow box indicates that the judges aren't quite sure and will need to review it (if you notice, as you keep watching yellow boxes eventually turn either red or green). 

Part of me appreciated this as a tool for the casual viewer to know how a person was performing, but another part of me missed the suspense of not knowing how the scoring would come out. If you saw a guy with 2 red boxes, you already knew there was no chance, since the guy before him only had one. Anyhow, it’s like the yellow first-down line in the NFL - it’s probably here to stay.

I had a slightly humorous and mostly serious thought enter my mind. What if we, as humans living our day to day lives, had these green-yellow-red boxes appear whenever we made a choice or engaged in a behavior? What if others could see how we were scoring in terms of effectively living our daily lives?

Now, in order for this to work, we would have to be judged against something: a routine, a plan, a blueprint of sorts. Basically, we’d be judged against a standard for which we live our lives. Perhaps it’s a religious doctrine, or community norms, or at the minimum, laws and regulations. If you jay-walk, you’re definitely getting a red box. (or maybe yellow, since who really gets in trouble for jaywalking?)

In the workplace, maybe you are evaluated based on how well you perform your daily to-do list, or if you develop a new idea. In the classroom, you could get green boxes for paying attention and participating, and yellows for taking Buzzfeed quizzes instead. The guy next to you snoring, with his head dangerously close to laying on your shoulder, is off-the-charts red.

But what about fraternity and sorority life? For what would we earn green boxes next to our name?

The Ritual.

The Ritual is your routine, your plan, your blueprint. As soon as you are initiated, a series of gray boxes show up next to your name, and it's now your job to make them green. The Ritual will sometimes allow you to comfortably skate in a straight line, but will also ask you to pull off a quadruple axel on occasion. Are you up to the challenge?

For example, my fraternity’s Ritual asks me to be kind and generous to others, even strangers in need. That’s the foundation for the “Helping Hand” of Theta Chi. So, if today I was to walk idly past a person who has fallen down, that red box next to my name will be loud and obvious. If I was back in my college fraternity house, sitting across the breakfast table from a brother who is in clear emotional pain, what would my Ritual call upon me to do? Be worried but just walk away (red)? Say something motivational like “I’m sure things will get better” (yellow)? Or, clear my morning to spend in conversation with him so that I can get him the help he needs (green)? If I knew that a box would appear next to my name based on my decision, I might give it some additional thought.

But here’s the thing, we obviously do not have those boxes literally popping up for all to see. Our success and our mistakes are not always broadcast to the world. 

But imagine there is a panel of judges who can see them, and who would mark you up or down based on how well you perform. For fraternity, this panel might include your founders, your big brother/sister, your favorite alum, etc.

And most importantly, it includes you.

When you go to bed each night, look up in the sky and find your row of boxes. They are sitting there below your name. Was your routine - your Ritual - executed well? Did you deserve the yellows and reds you see, and can you make those green tomorrow?

Remember that in skating, a green box doesn't mean that a particular element was flawless...just that it was executed well. Your Ritual isn't calling upon you to be perfect, but it certainly will give your guidance on what will "score well." 

Let's go land those jumps.

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Five Signs That Could Save a Life

Another horrible school shooting. 

Like you, I’m wondering why the hell this happens and what we can do for it to never happen again. Maybe like you, I also recognize it’s a complicated issue that will need to be addressed from several angles.

In the aftermath, it has been learned that the shooter demonstrated some behaviors and made some statements that were troubling. For many in the school, there is shock in what happened, but not necessarily in who the perpetrator was. Clearly, someone who acts in this way is unhealthy mentally and emotionally and likely has lived in that state for a long time before he opened fire. 

Now, this isn’t to cast aspersions on those who may have noticed some troubling signs but didn’t act upon them. Who knows what you or I might have done with similar information. In addition, no person who chooses to shoot up a school fits into a formula of detection. There are others (thousands more) in our society who struggle with what the shooter may have struggled with, but don’t lash out in such a violent way. 

Could he have been stopped by something as simple as a caring conversation some months earlier? Hard to tell. 

I’ll leave the discussions about guns to another blog. This blog is about organizational living, especially as expressed in the college fraternity and sorority experience. In that way, it is also about the dynamics that occur when we live in community with other people…be that a fraternity, or a school, or a workplace, or a family. Community life calls upon us all to take care of each other. 

If a brother or sister of yours were to clutch their chest and show symptoms of a heart condition, we’d call 911. If a brother or sister breaks their hand, we will get them to an emergency room. But, if a brother or sister is struggling with another organ – their brain – we don’t always act as quickly. Likely because we don’t understand the signs or are scared by ideas like depression, schizophrenia, bipolar, and suicide. 

I was recently introduced to a simple and effective tool that all fraternity and sorority members should understand and utilize in this regard. 

The tool comes from an organization called The Campaign to Change Direction, whose purpose is expressed as follows: 
The Change Direction initiative is a collection of concerned citizens, nonprofit leaders, and leaders from the private sector who have come together to change the culture in America about mental health, mental illness, and wellness. This initiative was inspired by the discussion at the White House National Conference on Mental Health in 2013, which came on the heels of the Newtown, Conn. tragedy. 

If you recall, Newtown is where Sandy Hook Elementary is, which was the worst school massacre in American history. 

The campaign has developed the Five Signs, which is a simple way to help us all be more observant towards the plight of those we are in community with. Noticing these signs can help deter the severe consequences of someone who becomes mentally and/or emotionally unstable.

The Five Signs and the description from The Campaign to Change Direction for each are as follows:
Personality Change 
Their personality changes. You may notice sudden or gradual changes in the way that someone typically behaves. He or she may behave in ways that don't seem to fit the person's values, or the person may just seem different. 

They seem uncharacteristically angry, anxious, agitated, or moody. You may notice the person has more frequent problems controlling his or her temper and seems irritable or unable to calm down. People in more extreme situations of this kind may be unable to sleep or may explode in anger at a minor problem.
They withdraw or isolate themselves from other people. Someone who used to be socially engaged may pull away from family and friends and stop taking part in activities he or she used to enjoy. In more severe cases the person may start failing to make it to work or school. Not to be confused with the behavior of someone who is more introverted, this sign is marked by a change in someone's typical sociability, as when someone pulls away from the social support he or she typically has. 

Poor Self-Care 
You may notice a change in the person's level of personal care or an act of poor judgment. For instance, someone may let personal hygiene deteriorate, or the person may start abusing alcohol or illicit substances or engaging in other self destructive behavior that may alienate loved ones.

They seem overcome with hopelessness and overwhelmed by their circumstances. Have you noticed someone who used to be optimistic and now can’t find anything to be hopeful about? That person may be suffering from extreme or prolonged grief, or feelings of worthlessness or guilt. People in this situation may say that the world would be better off without them, suggesting suicidal thinking.

Let’s be honest: many of us walk the other way at such signs because we don’t want to create an issue if one doesn’t really exist. Yes, perhaps we get burned by reaching out to a brother who is showing these signs but it’s related to something else, or they are in denial about them. We might be judged as intrusive and it could impact the friendship we have with this person. 

But the consequences of inaction are far worse. 

Should they get mad, here is an easy retort: “I’m your brother/sister dammit, and checking in on you is my job.”

Knowing the signs is one thing, but then what? Very likely you are not a trained counselor or therapist, and you should NEVER try to be. Be with them and supportive of them as you help them find a professional who can help. If you are reading this from a college campus, stop right now and look up where you counseling center is located. Here are some helpful hotlines as well.

How much different could our history and current situations be if more people were willing to fight through the fear of reaching out and more willing to have the vulnerability to throw themselves in front of a person who is traveling a dangerous path and say “I love you and I’m not going to let you go there.” 

Thank you to the Campaign to Change Direction for bringing attention to this issue. I’m sure they would welcome a national fraternity/sorority (or several) to their list of sponsoring organizations. Mental health, depression, suicide, and all associated issues are all significantly prevalent in today’s fraternity and sorority. One of the outcomes of tragedy is that it tends to wake us up.

This is a call for all of us to stay awake this time, and truly discover what it means to help each other. 

Thursday, February 1, 2018

The Place Between Places

Image result for trapeze artist
I recently experienced some changes in my life professionally and personally that had me somewhat flipped upside-down.  Life changes as a 21-year-old can be thrilling, as a 31-year-old can be invigorating, but as a 41-year-old can be downright terrifying. I was organizing some files, and found a favorite essay buried within my "inspiration" folder. Reading it as this point in my life made a deeper impression than when I first read it a decade ago. I thought I would share it, because I feel it's one of those beautifully-crafted passages that every person needs to read. Trust me, there is undeniable truth in what he is saying.

The author is Danaan Perry, is the passage is excerpted from the book Warriors of the Heart.
The Parable of the Trapeze
Sometimes I feel that my life is a series of trapeze swings. I'm either hanging on to a trapeze bar swinging along or, for a few moments in my life, I'm hurtling across space in between trapeze bars.

Most of the time, I spend my life hanging on for dear life to my trapeze-bar-of-the-moment. It carries me along at a certain steady rate of swing and I have the feeling that I'm in control of my life.

I know most of the right questions and even some of the answers.

But every once in a while as I'm merrily (or even not-so-merrily) swinging along, I look out ahead of me into the distance and what do I see? I see another trapeze bar swinging toward me. It's empty and I know, in that place in me that knows, that this new trapeze bar has my name on it. It is my next step, my growth, my aliveness coming to get me. In my heart of hearts I know that, for me to grow, I must release my grip on this present, well-known bar and move to the new one.

Each time it happens to me I hope (no, I pray) that I won't have to let go of my old bar completely before I grab the new one. But in my knowing place, I know that I must totally release my grasp on my old bar and, for some moment in time, I must hurtle across space before I can grab onto the new bar.

Each time, I am filled with terror. It doesn't matter that in all my previous hurtles across the void of unknowing I have always made it. I am each time afraid that I will miss, that I will be crushed on unseen rocks in the bottomless chasm between bars. I do it anyway. Perhaps this is the essence of what the mystics call the faith experience. No guarantees, no net, no insurance policy, but you do it anyway because somehow to keep hanging on to that old bar is no longer on the list of alternatives. So, for an eternity that can last a microsecond or a thousand lifetimes, I soar across the dark void of "the past is gone, the future is not yet here."

It's called "transition." I have come to believe that this transition is the only place that real change occurs. I mean real change, not the pseudo-change that only lasts until the next time my old buttons get punched.

I have noticed that, in our culture, this transition zone is looked upon as a "no-thing," a noplace between places. Sure, the old trapeze bar was real, and that new one coming towards me, I hope that's real, too. But the void in between? Is that just a scary, confusing, disorienting nowhere that must be gotten through as fast and as unconsciously as possible?

NO! What a wasted opportunity that would be. I have a sneaking suspicion that the transition zone is the only real thing and the bars are illusions we dream up to avoid the void where the real change, the real growth, occurs for us. Whether or not my hunch is true, it remains that the transition zones in our lives are incredibly rich places. They should be honored, even savored. Yes, with all the pain and fear and feelings of being out of control that can (but not necessarily) accompany transitions, they are still the most alive, most growth-filled, passionate, expansive moments in our lives.

From the book Warriors of the Heart by Danaan Parry.

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Meeting the "Administration"

There is a building on your campus that houses the "administration."  It is probably near the center of campus, looks formal and foreboding, and is encircled by storm clouds. If one listens closely, the sounds of cackling can be heard emanating from it's halls.  It is in this building that the "administration" plots against you, tries to make life difficult for you, and holds endless meetings on how to kill the Greek system.  Portaits of Dean Wormer and Napoleon Bonaparte adorn the halls.

Of course, this is fiction.  But I feel as though this is how students instantly perceive the higher level leaders of their college or university, such as their President and Vice Presidents.  Their Greek Advisor is okay - because they have seen him or her in shorts running around smiling during Greek Week.  They've met that person and it seems like he/she is on our side.  But the administration is something distant, ominous, and uncaring.

The best chapters - the most proactive ones - understand a very important fact:  There is no such thing as the administration.  There are administrators.  With names.  With whom you can work to build relationships. 

New presidents should set up regular check-ins with their campus Greek advisor, with their chapter alumni advisor, their faculty advisor and any other advisor who works as closely with the chapter.  But really good presidents (and council presidents as well) find an hour to have an annual meeting with those at higher levels.  The spring semester may be a good time to do this.

Why?  Not only is it a good educational experience for you, but it's a great way to build a bridge that can be helpful later.  Be the president that's willing to make that meeting happen.  Here are some tips:

In preparation for the meeting:
  • Develop an agenda and then share that agenda with the administrator.  Not only does that ensure you have a purpose to the meeting, but it demonstrates your preparedness.
  • Be ready to look nice and to be on time.  
  • Make sure that those you bring along can properly represent the fraternity.
Here is what I recommend for the meeting agenda:
  • Offer thanks and appreciation.  Start the meeting my thanking the administrator for what they do, and for hosting your chapter on the campus.  If you don't understand all that they do in their role, give them a chance to share that with you.
  • Summarize the state of your fraternity.  Share with him/her your achievements over the last year.  Brag a little bit.  What are you doing that should make the administrator proud to have you on this campus?  If he/she were explaining the Greek system to a colleague, what stories can you share that they could pass along?  Think about academics, service, leadership, etc.
  • Their thoughts and vision for Greek life.  Invite them to share their perspective on how Greek life can improve on this campus.  Listen very intently, because next you should...
  • Express how you think your fraternity can contribute to that vision.
  • Provide your own thoughts and feedback.  Here is a chance for you to offer your own opinions for how the university can better support Greek life.  Don't be adversarial.  Frame it with the vision that they shared with you.  If the university did ______ , then our fraternity can more easily meet your vision for Greek life.
While you are in the meeting:
  • Listen actively.  Come into the meeting willing to learn something new or to hear a perspective you hadn't yet considered.
  • Be open and friendly.  In that moment, you are an ambassador for your organization and for all of Greek life on your campus.
After the meeting:
  • Deliver a handwritten thank you note to the administrator.
  • Invite them to attend a meal or other function that would positively showcase your fraternity. 
A particular note on college/university presidents.  I see many of them get criticized for not being student-friendly or student-focused.  Of all the administrators, they can often seem the most distant from you as a student.  You know what - that's okay.  If your president is doing his/her job, they are keeping the institution open so that you can achieve your degree.  They are bringing resources to the campus to improve life there, and they are focused on the priorities that their board of directors has laid out for them.  Because of this, they often cannot spend time attending every student event, or strolling around the campus shaking hands.  But that's why they have Student Affairs officers, such as a VP and/or a Dean of Students.  They should be ones focused most on your immediate issues.

It's not to say a President LIKES spending their time so distant from your experience.  If you talked to them, I'm sure they would say the good stuff about their job is when they can be with students.  That's why I am certain they would accept your invitation to meet, and would really enjoy the experience.

Spend time understanding the administrators on your campus, and striving to get to know them.  You will likely find that the formerly dark and dreadful administration building actually has a bright welcome mat at the front door.

Thursday, December 14, 2017

The Dark Side of Fraternity and the Fears That Take Us There

I am a Star Wars nerd, and proud of it. I grew up with the original trilogy and still have the boxes of toys and action figures to prove it. Tonight I take my sons to see the newest installment and I'm stoked. While as a child I appreciated Star Wars more for its action and adventure, as an adult, I can better see the deeper themes it conveys. 

The Star Wars canon is based upon the idea that there is a Force that binds the galaxy. That Force can be used for good, as it is by the Jedi, or it can be used for evil, as it is by the Sith. The evil use of the Force is called the dark side. It's power is drawn from emotions such as fear, anger, and hatred. Those who go to the dark side are often tempted there because of their inability to handle such emotions and by the promise of significant power. The dark side is not a natural state of being, but the inability to foster positive emotions of peace, justice, and kindness combined with the inability to control negative emotions makes the lure of the dark side difficult to avoid.

Kind of sounds like the real human experience, doesn't it? And the fraternity experience as well.

If there is a Force that binds together the fraternal life, then there is also a light and dark side. What seems apparent, especially in light of recent headlines, is that too many of our brothers and sisters are being drawn to the dark side. Because of that, they use fraternity as a vehicle for their worst impulses and wreak damage upon it as they go. 

But like in Star Wars, I believe that the dark side is unnatural, which means there are reasons why someone would be drawn there. 

Like Master Yoda, I believe it is about fear. The Jedi Master once told his pupil Luke Skywalker:
“Fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.”
I believe there are three primary fears that fraternity and sorority members all have as they enter the experience, and how they address or manage those fears determines if they find the light or dark side of fraternity life.

Fear of Vulnerability
Perhaps one of our greatest fears in life, as well as in fraternity, is the fear of vulnerability. It's what leads us to be scared of public speaking, hesitant to be open with our emotions, and fearful of being rejected by those we admire. This avoidance of vulnerability leads us to build walls around ourselves and to live a carefully manicured life.

To be vulnerable with our brothers or sisters means that we are honest with our emotions, open with our challenges, and willing to admit our mistakes. It means inviting deep conversations about life, and a desire to explore our inner self through conversations with others. Bestselling leadership author Patrick Lencioni lists vulnerability as the number one thing necessary for teams to be successful.

The man or woman in your organization who fears vulnerability is the one who makes up for it by trying to be always funny, or always cool. He or she probably is recognized by everyone, but truly known by no one. It might be hard to describe his/her life outside of the fraternity, or really describe anything other than surface-oriented traits. Their insecurities are masked by indulgences that look like a cry for self-discovery. I know this fear, and almost all of us deal with it.

Fear of Accountability
The fear of accountability doesn't simply mean fear of being caught doing something wrong, just like a 4-year-old hides the fact that he stole a cookie from the jar. It goes a little deeper than that. It really means fear of being called to be a better man/woman than we already believe ourselves to be. It means not wanting to face the fact that to strengthen our character means doing really hard work and being open to those we love holding a mirror to our faces and pushing us to be something more.

The fraternity experience is expertly designed for those who want to be better versions of themselves. Not only does it proactively do this through training, education, and exposure to life-guiding values, but living life in such close proximity to others means that our flaws will likely be exposed. If the fraternity life is lived well, there is conflict (internally and externally) that puts our character on full display. Our brothers and sisters then are uniquely positioned to challenge us, question us, and hold us accountable to who we want to be.

The man or woman in your organization who ignores the fraternity experience as one in which they can become better likely struggles to fully embrace it. These may be your disengaged members, or the ones who start strong but never progress to become the members others thought they would be. They may grow to see fraternity as only a vehicle for enjoyment, and treat it as such. They are afraid to be criticized for their thoughts or actions, and thus the easier choice is to drift into the shadows.

Fear of Acceptance
As human beings, we all want to be accepted and appreciated. It's a chief reason why so many of us seek out organizations - to achieve that sense of belonging. But we are scared that our true selves, our personalities, our idiosyncrasies, and our personal traits are not good enough to be accepted. We tell ourselves that we should instead model the behavior of others and wear their faces instead.

This fear of acceptance leads us to conformity. And in today's fraternity, unfortunately, conformity looks an awful lot like the dark side. It's more normal to respect the social calendar more than the Ritual. It's more normal to treat pledges or younger members as neophytes instead of equals. It's more normal to be apathetic instead of raising one's hand to serve.

When we fear acceptance, then we may choose to live fraternity as others do, instead of listening to our inner voice. You can probably see how all of these fears are linked. If we aren't vulnerable, then we aren't placing our true selves forward to be accepted. And because of that, we may discount how much power the fraternity experience has to make our true selves even better.

If you do not believe that you can ever truly be accepted in your fraternity for who you authentically are, and this has been tested, then it's time to find another.

Those who are able to conquer (not likely), or manage (more likely) these fears are those who will find the strength in the light side. It starts with understanding them, and acknowledging that it's normal and appropriate to have all of these fears. And then, deciding to be vulnerable, to be held accountable, and to seek acceptance for your authentic self.

If we are too proud to acknowledge these fears in ourselves, and thus ignore how much they are controlling our destinies, then the dark side will come beckoning. 

May the Force be with you.


Wednesday, November 29, 2017

5 Signs Your Fraternity is a Thick Organization

"Some organizations are thick, and some are thin. Some leave a mark on you, and some you pass through with scarcely a memory."
- David Brooks

It seems to be all the rage right now for campuses to ban, either by administrative fiat or IFC resolution, fraternity activities. The common reason given is for the Greek community to have time and space for soul-searching. So allow me to suggest a framework by which fraternities and sororities can adequately search their souls. 

A fraternity mentor of mine, John Bloom, shared with me an outstanding column by David Brooks of the New York Times. In this article, Brooks defines what it means to be a "thick" organization, mostly as one that leaves a mark on you. He adds other criteria, such as:
  • An organization that "becomes a part of the person's identity and engages the whole person: head, hands, heart, and soul."
  • One with a set of rituals.
  • One with shared tasks, that often involve members looking out for one another.
  • Organizations that "tell and retell a sacred origin story about themselves."
  • One with a common ideal.
  • Possession of an "idiosyncratic local culture" that differentiates them from other organizations.
As I read through his criteria, the idea of fraternity emerged in my mind. Fraternal organizations are ripe to become thick experiences for their members because they inherently have all of those traits listed above. One could say that the longevity of the fraternity movement in this country can be attributed to how "thick" these organizations can be. University administrators certainly know that when they contemplate the future of fraternities on their campuses, they are dealing with very significant entities that can offer thick experiences.

And yet, so many of our members have thin experiences instead. Fraternity becomes something they did for a short while, and their memories get packed away in some box they store in their attic. Fraternity for many is only about the few friendships they've held on to, instead of a deep and holistic values-based and life-directing experience. And because of that, they are less willing to care for these organizations as they experience them and thus are more willing to participate in damaging them.

Why should you care to make your fraternity a thick organization? There would likely be some strong tangible benefits such as stronger alumni engagement and more members inspired to contribute more. The intangibles, such as a richer and more fulfilling experience, would almost definitely show up as well.

Overall, if we can make our fraternities be the thick organizations they are destined to be, then many of the problems that lead to all-university bans and suspensions will go away.

So, take Brooks' criteria as the base for a thick organization, what would be evidence that this base was maximized to build a truly special fraternity? Here might be some indicators that your fraternity is thick:
  1. Members discuss the fraternity in terms of how it has become a part of their identity, and not just something they are involved with. The values of the fraternity become a regular part of jargon used when members talk about what fraternity means to them. And, the ideals of the fraternity become included in how members describe their own aspirations for the kinds of individuals they hope to be.
  2. Alumni engagement is substantial, meaning their involvement is directed towards ensuring a strong future for the chapter, and not just based in reliving the good old days. Alumni who have experienced a thick fraternity will likely donate more time and money to the organization and see themselves in a mentoring role for the current undergraduates.
  3. Involvement of Juniors is strong. I've become convinced that we will never get the devoted attention of Seniors because they are in a period of life transition that focuses their energy elsewhere. I would judge a thick organization by what its Juniors are doing. Are they filling important leadership roles, attending events and activities, strongly involved in recruitment, and finding ways to represent their chapter elsewhere on campus. If interest starts to wane in the Junior year, it shows that the organization is only thick for a short period of time, which means it really isn't thick at all.
  4. An observer would label your recruitment efforts are relational. Thin organizations master the art of the sales pitch and the show, since that's all they can rely upon. Thick organizations build their ranks through conversation and authentic relationships. Hardly any training or preparation is needed because members of thick organizations can speak from the heart. When this happens, only those seeking thick experiences will want to join and that benefits us all.
  5. Thick organizations are not cyclical. Many fraternities and sororities have peaks and valleys over time - in membership and campus influence. Being so turbulent in success means that the chapter is defined by who members are in specific periods of time, and not by the strength of its rituals and common ideals. Sure, thick organizations can struggle and they are not immune to downturns. However, those downturns are often episodic and mended fairly quickly. While thin chapter A is on-again, off-again over the period of 20 years, thick chapter B is almost always on, with only a few blips along the way.
There are many different ways you can judge the value and strength of your fraternity, especially in its undergraduate form. I really like Brooks' terminology and definitions because you can really feel them - thick versus thin.

Just like a thick sheet of ice can withstand a lot of pressure and weight, thick organizations will remain solid and standing, even when all the bans and suspensions go away.

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

A Serious IFC (Part 2)

In the last post, I described 5 reasons why many IFCs are not taken seriously. This week, my goal is to provide ten steps that any IFC can take to gain more credibility. There are many more answers than the ones I will give below, and the ones I give could use more explanation than I have room to provide. If you want any further details on my ideas, feel free to ask questions in the comment section or contact me directly. Here we go…

1: Define Your Purpose
If the purpose of your IFC is in question, then your mission as a council for the next year is to define it. If you accomplish nothing as an IFC except to agree upon a purpose (sometimes conveyed as a mission statement or statement of purpose), you still will move mountains. It’s that important. I encourage you to appoint a small task force of IFC delegates and officers to take on this task. This task force should work off a 6-month timeline, and do some or all of the following:
  • Review current documents, including the constitution, for evidence of purpose and mission.
  • Interview major stakeholders, such as fraternity officers and members, campus administrators, and other governing council officers.
  • Investigate IFC mission statements from peer institutions.
  • Consult resources available from the NIC, AFLV, and other entities.
  • Draft a 1-2 page document describing the findings and proposing a new statement of purpose for the IFC. The full IFC then discusses and debates the document.
Having a defined purpose can then inform how you structure committees, officer positions, and agendas for the IFC meetings.

2: Chart the Course

I’m a big fan of retreats to start a new era. It’s a great time for trust-building and vision-casting. The retreat can focus the group on the issues that matter to the fraternity system. Develop a list of 6-8 strategic priorities for the IFC. Such priorities could include: (a) increase fraternity membership, (b) update and ratify the IFC constitution, (c) develop a stronger working relationship with other governing councils, (d) build relationships with senior administrators, (e) provide more education and resources for chapter officers, etc. Your journey as an IFC will be easier with a map.

3: Get the Right People in the Room
In my opinion, the right people to attend IFC meetings and represent their chapters are the chapter presidents. I know how busy a chapter president is, but serving as an ambassador for the chapter, representing member interests, and building stronger interfraternal relationships are all part of his job description. He is the right person for the job.

4: Set a Professional Meeting Environment
I know a serious IFC when I see one. So do your delegates and stakeholders. If they visited your meeting, what would they experience and see? The most serious IFCs among us take intentional steps to ensure a professional environment for their meetings.

This includes location. Try to avoid the dingy, chalky classroom on the 3rd floor of some random academic building. It kills creativity. Also avoid the large lecture hall or auditorium, for these spaces inhibit natural conversation. Ideally, find a big open room in a central location, in which you can set long tables in a square, so that the delegates can all see each other. Trust me, it helps.

When the first delegate arrives, the room should be set and ready to go. Ideally, IFC officers are already present, floating around the room and greeting attendees. Light refreshments can’t hurt. Provide each delegate with a name placard that lists their first and last name, and their fraternity affiliation (or IFC officer position). These guys are going to be engaged in important debates – it helps if they can call each other by name.

Finally - call me old-fashioned, but shorts, ballcaps, and sandals will give one kind of atmosphere, and shirts, ties, and badges will give you another. I like the latter.

5: Make the Meetings Valuable
Serious IFCs spend time having thoughtful discussion and debate about the biggest issues confronting the fraternity system. In order to make space for this, reduce the amount of time spent giving reports and making announcements. For instance, items that do not require discussion can be e-mailed in advance, or distributed as handouts.

Once you’ve made the time, now you can talk about what matters. However, without some structure, delegates will simply stare at each other. One idea is to take the strategic priorities you develop at the retreat, assign a small task force of IFC delegates and officers to investigate and make recommendations on each priority, and then spend each meeting addressing a different priority. Each task force can present recommendations and lead the discussion (which is a great way to share leadership).

You may need to work up to this, but I believe that 75% of each IFC meeting should be spent discussing system-wide issues and strategic direction. IFC members should come prepared to be intellectually challenged by complex and consequential questions.

6: Take a Stand
While an IFC should always strive to be proactive, there will be times when a problem or issue is forced upon you. You may need to fight. For example, what if your host campus wanted to defer recruitment until the sophomore year? Many IFCs would wallow in self-pity while the policy changes. Be stronger than that. Start by passing a resolution in the IFC meeting condemning the new policy. Send the resolution, with a cover letter by the IFC president, to relevant campus administrators. Next, set up meetings with the administrators in order to share the resolution and the IFC’s concerns. Be persistent, but courteous. Involve external entities such as alumni, national offices, and the NIC. These are defining moments for a representative group like an IFC, and you’ll be remembered most for how you handle them. Be a champion for the fraternity system. Perhaps a quote from Teddy Roosevelt is appropriate:

“The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood..."

7: Do an IFC Road Show
In order to increase visibility, send IFC officers out to chapter meetings at the start of each semester. The goal should be to share with the chapter members a few of the major IFC initiatives and issues. In addition, it’s a good time to listen to needs and concerns from the general members.

8: Learn the Power of the Written Letter
Yes, we live in an e-mail and social media culture. It’s revolutionized how we do business and communicate with each other. Fine. I encourage you to break from the norm every now and then, and learn the power of the personalized letter. Invest in a stack of IFC letterhead, IFC envelopes, and a nice blue pen. Whenever a fraternity wins a national award, send them a letter. If a chapter receives publicity for a service project, send them a letter. Founders Day for one of your chapters? Send them a letter. Consider copying the Greek Advisor and the Chapter Advisor. It doesn’t take a lot of time, and the fraternity that receives the letter will likely post it on a bulletin board. That’s where important letters from important people typically go.

9: Have More Personalized Conversations
At the start of the new IFC year (new officers and delegates), the IFC President should set aside time to meet with the president of each fraternity represented on the IFC. If possible, include other IFC officers as well. The purpose of this meeting is for the IFC President to do 2 things: (1) build rapport, and (2) listen. Here is a good list of questions to start with:
  • What are your hopes and aspirations for your chapter?
  • How can the IFC help you achieve these aspirations?
  • What do you expect from the IFC in general?
  • How do you think your contributions can make the IFC stronger?
  • What priorities should the IFC address this year?

10: Set Up Regular Meetings with Senior Administrators

The IFC President and Officers should establish regular standing meetings with senior administrators. It is important that these meetings be proactive and positive, and generally accomplish 3 things: (1) inform the administrators of recent IFC and chapter accomplishments, (2) share concerns and questions from the delegates, and (3) listen to the needs and perspectives of the administrators. Such administrators would include: the President, the Vice President of Student Affairs, the Dean of Students, the Director of Housing (if applicable), and the Provost. These meetings may only occur once a semester, and that’s okay (unless there is an urgent issue). It’s about reminding them that you’re here and working to build a stronger fraternity system. By building a friendly and professional relationship, they are more likely to listen to you when it matters most.

Those are several of my ideas and I hope you've found them helpful. I plan to build out some of them in future posts. Please share your ideas in the comments section below.

If the fraternity movement is to succeed, it needs strong, active, and credible IFCs to help steer the ship. Here's your chance to lead. Seriously.

Thursday, September 28, 2017

A Serious IFC

When used correctly, the Interfraternity Council can be one of the most dynamic, forward-thinking, credible, and professional organizations on any campus. At many colleges and universities, however, the general sentiment is that the IFC is a “joke.” There is typically no one person to blame for this, and most IFC officers I talk with are working very hard to reverse this attitude. An unserious IFC likely didn’t lose its credibility overnight, and it will also take time to make it better.

From my observations and work with IFCs, here are what I see as the biggest reasons many of them lack credibility:

Reason #1: The Meetings Are a Waste of Time
No – they’re not just a waste of time, they are a colossal waste of time. Watching Sharknado 3 each week for an entire year would be more productive. Of course, that would make each meeting longer, by about 1 hour and 45 minutes. If your IFC meeting agenda resembles this: (1) Call to Order, (2) Roll Call, (3) Officer Reports, (4) Announcements, (5) Adjourn, then your delegates may not take it very seriously. If everything that happens in your meeting could happen quicker and more effectively through Twitter, then you have a problem.

Reason #2: The Wrong People Are in the Room
I love sharing leadership. I love that we have officer positions for about everything in Greek-letter organizations (I’m talking to you Co-Assistant Snapchat Chair). It’s fun and adds to our uniqueness. But, there is one position I wouldn’t mind eliminating – the IFC delegate. It’s true – on some campuses and in some chapters, this position is held in high regard and taken very seriously. However, more often than not, this position is one of the last to be filled and desired by the eventual recipient as much as he would desire the Bird Flu. The IFC should be the place where the future direction of the fraternity system is charted, and most chapters are sending the poor freshman who thought that IFC was internet slang for “In-Fashion Clothes.”

Reason #3: “What Exactly Do They Do?”
Many IFCs are invisible. Nobody really knows that they exist. Or, if they are aware of the IFC, they still don’t know what they do. This is true for random students and senior administrators alike. If a random person were asked about the IFC, and the response is a shrug, questioning look, or “huh?” then you may not be seen as serious. The answer isn’t a publicity or marketing blitz – it’s becoming important enough to notice. Would you notice a meteor if it were a million light years away and looked like some random star in the sky? Probably not. What if that meteor was 100 yards away and coming right at you? Now you notice it. In many cases, we’ve allowed our IFCs to just be one little star within a sky that has millions. It’s time we start doing important work and get noticed.

Reason #4: Lack of Purpose
Invisibility can also be a signal for a deeper issue – lack of purpose. Let’s face it, many IFC officers and delegates are also unaware of what the IFC does and why it exists. That’s because we are unsure of our purpose. Think about it this way – if your IFC were to hibernate for 12 months, would anyone notice? Would the fraternity system be harmed by your absence? If your answer is “no,” then wrestle with this question – why is your IFC even here? Ask that question at your next IFC meeting and see what happens. You will likely get many different responses, and some confused looks. Defining a purpose is important. Making that purpose significant and inspiring is essential. This is work that you need to do for your particular IFC, but a good model is the NIC. The NIC’s purpose is to Advocate, Collaborate, and Educate. Sounds like a good one for an IFC as well.

Reason #5: The Wimp Factor
Nothing against wimps, but don’t be one. It kills credibility because it diminishes respect. Nobody respected George McFly until he stood up for Lorraine and laid out Biff. How often does your IFC take a stand? Do the chapters view the IFC as a champion for their rights? When some entity enacts a new policy that fraternities view as unjust, who speaks on their behalf? People take seriously those who they can rely upon, and those who are on their side. Conversely, how can you ever take seriously someone who always gets rolled over? Don't be a "yes man." Don't be a puppet. Be George McFly – the post “get your damn hands off her" George McFly.
Hey you…get your damn hands off her! sound bite

What do you think? Are there other reasons I haven't considered? 

This post was originally published in April 2010 and has been updated.

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

If You Always Look for Problems, That’s Always What You’ll Find

The time is upon us when thousands of fraternity and sorority members will return to campus and begin another year.  Many of those groups will do the smart thing and have a retreat to plan out the year and set goals.  At the minimum, almost all fraternity and sorority leaders will think about questions like: what do we need to do to reach our potential?  To achieve excellence?

This post isn’t meant to answer those questions, for each situation is unique.  Rather, let me offer you some thoughts on how you get to those answers.

Fraternity and sorority life is a “problems-based” industry.  We are constantly talking about problems.  We seem to always be focused like a laser on what’s wrong with us and what needs to be fixed. 

It can be depressing.  I only have my hunches to back this up, but I think one of the reasons there is so much turnover in campus Greek advising is that individuals just get sick and tired of the constant negativity. 

I don’t believe that we can ignore our problems, especially the ones that could jeopardize our future in an instant.  But, what if we focused on our problems just a little bit less?  You might ask, well what would we focus on instead?

We would focus on what’s working.

You have a choice for where you put your energy.  You can put it towards finding problems (and if you look for them, you will find them), or you can put it towards finding the life-giving forces that make your organization thrive.  When you do the latter, you likely increase the exceptional stuff you want and overwhelm the negative stuff you don’t.

This whole approach is called Appreciate Inquiry.  There are scores of books and articles on this very scholarly topic.  I invite you to investigate it further, but here is a quick summary in terms of fraternities and sororities:

Appreciative Inquiry means that you ask questions of each other in order to unlock what is often hidden from view: namely, the parts of our organizations that are working and should be emphasized.   But, we tend to do the opposite.  At a typical fraternity or sorority event, we might ask questions such as:
·         What is holding us back from success?
·         What are the biggest challenges we face?
·         How do we fix our problems?
The answers to these questions would come from the standard fraternity/sorority problem index: poor recruitment, risk management, brotherhood/sisterhood issues, member apathy, Senior member motivation, etc.  We would then try to develop 3-5 targeted solutions for each of these problems.  Sounds reasonable, right?  

The only thing is it’s not very effective.  If it were, we wouldn’t still be as stuck with these problems as we are.  

What if instead, we focused on what’s working?  Maybe your chapter has an awesome calendar of service projects.  Why do your members get so excited about service?  After investigating that question, maybe you find out that members see it as a great vehicle for camaraderie.  Now we know that members hunger for opportunities to work together on significant things.  Can this new knowledge be applied to chapter academics (which haven’t been very good)?  Could this lead to more collaborative and social study sessions at the chapter house?  Let’s try that.

If you had instead started by asking “why does our chapter GPA suck?” you may never have reached the idea of building camaraderie.  You probably would have designed another unsuccessful points system or something like that.

Appreciative Inquiry sometimes is as simple as re-framing the questions that we ask.  See below:
Typical Questions
Appreciative Questions
Why aren’t we getting the number of recruits we want?
Why do we have the recruits we do?  What did they see in us that compelled them to join?  How can we use those reasons to our advantage?
What’s wrong with our brotherhood/sisterhood?
When in the recent past has our brotherhood/ sisterhood felt the strongest?  What was going on that made that happen?
How can we force members to follow our risk management policy?
What was the last social event we had that felt really safe and really fun?  What made it so?
Where did all the Seniors go? 
Who have been Seniors that have been really engaged?  Why did they stay involved?
How do we stop our downward slide?
What is the best thing we did last year?  What made it the best?  How can we apply those lessons to other things we do?
Why do we suck as a chapter?
In what areas do we excel as a chapter?

Do you see how simply re-framing those questions makes them much more exciting and positive?  By using appreciate inquiry, you are learning from your successes, not your failures.  You’re putting a spotlight on what works, not what’s broken.  And yet, in doing so, you are making repairs.

Appreciative Inquiry is based on several principles, some of which are particularly germane to fraternity and sorority life:

The Constructionist Principle says that “words create worlds.”  In other words, how we talk about something helps to create it.  For fraternity and sorority, this means the more we talk about ourselves as endless problems, the more likely we are to become that.

The Poetic Principle simply says that whatever we focus on, grows.  If we focus on problems, they may only get bigger because we are elevating them.  Likewise if we focus on positive elements.  One of the primary tenets of Appreciative Inquiry is that by allowing the positive forces to grow, they will overtake the negative ones.

The Anticipatory Principle says that “what we believe, we conceive.”  If we put in our minds-eye an image of our organization as vibrant and dynamic, that vision will direct our actions.

I think these principles can be a stretch for analytical thinkers who only want to diagnose
problems and prescribe solutions.  There is still a time and place for that.  However, too often  we let that “fix the problem” mentality dominate at all levels of our organizations – all the way up to boardrooms.  Save that for the small stuff.  For the big things – vision, goals, future – focus instead on the best of what you are.  Let those discoveries determine the course you take.

It is a maxim of Appreciative Inquiry that in every organization that exists, something is working.

And it’s there for you to find.

This post was originally published in July 2011 and has been updated