Too often our chapter executive boards unwittingly create a culture of exclusivity that leads to factions or cliques and is perceived as dictatorial to the majority of chapter members. This is rarely the intent of the officers – you just want to make as much forward progress as possible in the short time that you have in the fraternity. Instead of an adversarial relationship with the chapter members, chapter officers would do well to spend more time engaging them.

I spent last summer working as a mountain guide in Colorado taking groups on overnight backpacking trips to the summit of a tall and challenging mountain. The first day of the trip was relatively easy; we would hike about four miles from the trailhead to a campsite and setup basecamp. This gave groups time to acclimate to the hiking and provided a little challenge because they hiked up to camp with everything they needed on their backs. The second day was always much more challenging. I would wake the group up around 4:00 in the morning and get them to eat breakfast, filter water, and pack their day packs for the trip. If I had a good group, they would be ready to get back on the trail by 4:45. More often than not we started hiking closer to 5:15. The first couple hours of hiking was never too difficult for them, but once we got up to the point where trees no longer grow and the air is very thin, groups would start to struggle.

Throughout the summer every group I worked with had a clear division of stronger hikers and slower ones. Some groups would let that divide them and they would spread out on the mountain as we got closer to the summit. This was great for the few individuals who would get to the top first and have time to rest, but it had a negative effect on the slower group because they were really struggling to get to the top and were frustrated that it was more difficult for them. The groups that developed the best camaraderie were the groups whose fastest hikers insisted that the slower hikers go in front of the group. In effect, the leaders led from the back of the line and encouraged everyone to keep up the good work. This gave everyone a positive experience and the group finished faster than it would have if a few people ran ahead and the rest were left to themselves. In fact, a much larger percentage of members in the groups that did it this way made it to the top – the slower hikers felt an obligation to the team to get there.

Chapter officers get to make the same decision as those faster hikers – will you run ahead and wait for everyone to catch up, or will you lead from the back of the pack where you can encourage and empower your members?

Here are 5 strategies for engaging chapter members and creating buy-in in your organization:

  1. Hold a retreat before the beginning of each semester to assess your chapter and set goals for the following term – make sure chapter leaders do more listening than talking and that there is consensus on your goals.
  2. Create action-based committees in-line with your goals that are led by chapter officers and empower their members to do meaningful work for the fraternity or sorority.
  3. Make as many of your executive board meetings accessible to the general membership as possible – let them know that they are welcome to attend even if they are not allowed to speak to business items on the agenda. This will help dissipate the perception that the executive board is a secret society of dictators who come up with ideas for the chapter behind closed doors.
  4. Set fair and clear ground rules for discussion and chair your meetings as an impartial observer. If you are the chairman of your chapter meetings and you have a strong opinion about a discussion item, you should yield the chair to an impartial chapter leader for that discussion.
  5. Seek out opportunities to get feedback from chapter members about the progress of the chapter. In order for this to be effective you will need to schedule casual meetings with members to get their input – announcing at a chapter meeting that you have an “open door policy” and that anyone should feel free to let you know if they have questions or concerns rarely works. Meet with members and show them that you care what they think. Ask them how they feel about specific problems the fraternity is facing. This can be an eye-opening exercise.

As you come up on a term as an officer in your chapter remember this African proverb: “if you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together”.