Observations From The Road: The Three Week Syndrome

It is a variation of speed dating, with consulting, issue identification, problem solving and sometimes just listening as the objectives.

It is consulting with leaders and members of chapters at a given campus for brief periods of time–usually thirty minutes, although I’ll take 45 if I can get them.  My rules are simple–honesty and candor trumpt diplomacy and euphemisms every time.  I won’t waste your time with “Kind of…sort of…kinda like…a tiny bit…a little bit” in recommending changes.  You do the same with me.

If you want to debate hazing or tell me why risk management sucks, I’ll listen.  I will push back at some point, but I will listen.

If you want to talk about recruitment, or accountability, or why things aren’t working for your chapter, I will listen but I will also call you out on excuses and rationalizations.

If you think everything is great and the chapter is as good as it can be, I will do my best to draw out other opinions, especially from younger members who are there with us.  That is not a criticism–that is a challenge.  And that is my job, as I see it.

During a recent visit to a campus on the West coast, I met with seven different groups from 8 a.m. to noon on a Saturday morning, with one break when a group was not able to participate.  For me, those were enjoyable meetings, even when the topics were not positive. And, I was impressed with the fact that young men would show up on a weekend morning to talk about their chapters.

Two of the presidents who participated were new.  As is often the case, they were uncertain of how to handle issues in the chapter…how aggressive they should be…how much control they should exert.  I found an opportunity during each discussion to share this thought with them.

In my experience, every new president will be challenged within three weeks of his or her election.

The challenge may come in any number of forms or ways.  It may be a rebellious member…an over-involved alumna or alumnus…a financial crisis…a poor choice by some chapter members.  It may be a disgruntled executive council member who feels that she should have been elected president or a past president who can’t let go.  Regardless, it is a challenge and it usually surfaces within a few weeks of taking the gavel.

My advice?  This is life.  There is no “honeymoon” for a new president.  You have stepped onto a moving sidewalk.  You have strapped yourself into an F-22.  You have taken the last step off the 10 meter diving board.  You have that uncertain feeling in your stomach–the “Whoa! What have I done?”

It happens to every leader.  Sometimes some of your sisters or brothers are intentionally testing you to see just how committed you are to the values of your organization. Sometimes the frustration with a previous leader is bubbling up.  Sometimes members just want “Different”.

You may be taking over for a very hands off president who went along to get along…or a dictatorial control freak who wouldn’t allow anyone to do anything without approval…or a leader who hung her banner on the “That government that governs best governs least” flagpole, using that as a means of justifying no involvement in risk management, for example.

Aside from the metaphors:

First, evaluate the problem, challenge or issue.  Is this really a big deal, or just a deal, or have you or someone else inflated it beyond its significance?  That isn’t difficult to do when you are new.

One of the best leadership manuals I have read…was not a manual.  I found it while rummaging through the attic of our chapter house one December afternoon after final exams.  It was a journal kept by our chapter president in the early 1960s.  He wrote nearly every day.  His writing was concise and candid and he allowed the reader to draw the conclusions.  At the beginning of his term, his problems as he saw them were enormous.  By the halfway point of his term, he was gently mocking those same concerns.  With a few weeks to go, he was reviewing what he had learned as president, and the most important lesson he learned was, “Perspective”.  The mountains he saw in the distance as a new president were reduced to speed bumps by the time he handed over the gavel.

Don’t allow the drama majors to make your decisions for you.

Secondly, define the issue.  Look below the surface.  Is this truly a financial crisis or is accountability the issue?  Are we floundering in recruitment because members “don’t care” or because they have chosen to take their talents and abilities elsewhere after being frustrated by the culture in the chapter?

Finally: let’s work on an action plan.  One of the groups that I met with on that campus (but the president was not new) was encountering consistent challenges with some people not involved with the fraternity/sorority community.  An officer provided what one might call the TFM (Total Frat Move) response–a list of things that “We’re working on”.  Every response–every single plan or action–was cast in the future tense.  “We plan…We intend…We are expecting”  Every response was also in general terms, as in, “Well, we’ll sit down and talk” or “We’ll get to that”.  In other words, nothing was specific, nothing was measurable, and nothing was expected.  The result could be nothing, but it would be concealed behind all of those nicely stated future tense terms.

I told the group that I didn’t want to hear any more plans.  I wanted specific, measurable, steps that would be taken.  When would the meeting be, and where?  Who would attend?  What were the anticipated outcomes?  And rather than wring our hands about, “What if?”, why don’t we plan for “What is” as in, “This we know for certain”.

Did the session help?  If you’re me, you are rarely certain about that.  Some of the men nodded with me, while others were engaged in what I call the windshield wiper effect–looking back and forth at each other.  But, you do your best.

For new presidents, the first few weeks of office may seem like a roller coaster in reverse–the scariest descents and G-force curves occur immediately.  Hang in there.  The ride will smooth out, and as with that young president at a Midwestern campus many years ago, the fun is discovering that you can do this job…and do it very well.  Congratulations and enjoy the journey.

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