In the early years of America, there was a book called “The New England Primer”. This book was what taught young children not only their grammar, spelling, and vocabulary but also valuable character lessons. Pictured is one of the early pages of the book, wherein students were taught their alphabet along with lessons regarding Judeo-Christian principles, history, and the Protestant work ethic.
Fast-forward 200 years to conversations had among educators about topics being taught in our schools. America had grown (and continues to) and with that growth came new ideas, new religions, and new people groups. No longer could we just focus on these Judeo-Christian principles that had predominantly governed the founding groups. We needed a broader education, one that was more inclusive. And so, “The New England Primer” and other educational tools incorporating values of a certain group were put to rest.
Unfortunately, once these tools were set aside, nothing was offered to fill their place in teaching character. Admittedly, it is hard teach one set of character traits when the population is so divergent. I think we can agree that it is still necessary. But, is it still possible? If schools are not focused on teaching character, in our increasingly busy society, how are we imparting character lessons? We’ve entered this era in which my values are mine and yours are yours and that’s great. But, with this era, there is no right or wrong and no instruction on character or values beyond the minimal self-discovery.
As fraternity and sorority members and leaders, we have an opportunity to fill this gap in character education. At our heart, we are values-based organizations; each of us has values handed down from generation to generation of what a member of our organization should be. We don’t have to go out and discover them on our own; they’re presented and packaged in the beautiful container of ritual. We just need to unpack them and use them correctly. How?
Live with them
I’m skipping a step here, I know. I can hear my fellow Undergraduate Interfraternity Institute facilifriends yelling – “Matt, they’ve got to learn the values first!” OK. Learn your values. I think that’s the easy part; they’re written down and available to you (or anyone else that wants to look at your national website). But, then, live with them. Seek to master your values and make them the heart of your life. If you spend all your time in class memorizing facts and never applying them, your education has done nothing for you. Likewise, if you spend your time learning your values but never actually use them within your life, they’re about as useful as knowing the plot of every episode of Gossip Girl.
To make our learned values useful, we must live with them. Our values ought to be behind everything we do as people and as leaders. Each action we take, if asked “why?”, we should be able to point back and say “because it’s something I value.” As an individual and a chapter, the easiest way to test this is to look at your wallet and your planner. Where is your money going? Where is your time going? That’s how you’re living and that’s what your life says about your values. Continued practice and focus on your values and repetitive use of them in decisions and actions will not only show these values to the world, but also lead to habits which will last you the rest of your life in whatever roles (leadership or otherwise) you take.
Lead with them
The subject of this whole magazine is values-based leadership. We throw that term – “values-based leadership” – around frequently. But we often do not really delve into what it truly means except in minor moments when we ask if that decision that was just made was truly in line with what we believe as a person and as a member of our organization. That’s the tip of the iceberg and essentially what living with values entails.
Not only should our values be reflected in the decisions we make (the why question above), but also in our speech and actions. Much of the time, we bring up values in a retrospective manner; values-based leadership, however, brings values forward at the start of activities, when a decision or project is in its most infant stage. A values-based leader asks “what does our creed/ritual say to do” and then makes sure that happens.
Not only are they using these values to plot a course, values-based leaders are using them in their speech. They can’t help but talk about the values they hold dear. They are forever looking for examples of those values in action, of people to respect and emulate (be it a member of their chapter or not) so that they can paint a more full picture of these values and apply them more fully in their lives and leadership.
Recruit with them
Lastly, fraternity cannot spread and assist others with their growth in values and character without continuing to recruit. Sometimes in my work, I get asked by a student if fraternity/sorority life is for them. Because of who I am, I can’t just give the “Yay-rah!” answer that you’d probably expect from an advisor. Rather, I have become far more analytical in processing through whether or not fraternity and sorority life is a good option. One such case continues to stand out in my mind.
A sophomore student (let’s call them Sam) came to chat with me about joining a chapter. Now, Sam was highly involved on campus, a strong student, well-liked, and made good decisions. Sam would be a game-changer of a chapter member; probably a lock for chapter president. Sam chatted with me about joining a chapter that was very interested in Sam becoming a member. Sam and I talked about what the benefits were and why chapter membership might or might not be a good idea. Then Sam said something that made me think. Sam shared that “The chapter said that I was just what they were looking for; that I exemplified their values more than most of their members did.” High praise for Sam, right? I would be flattered to hear that. Sam’s follow-up comment is what really stuck with me: “If I exemplify their values more than their members and membership in a fraternity is supposed to make me a better person, to build me up even more in my values and abilities, why should I join? It seems like they would drag me back or use me as a poster child.” To this day, Sam is still unaffiliated.
Are there Sams in your community, students who would be better members than half of your chapter but are unwilling to join exactly for that reason? If you’re not living and leading with values, you’re missing out on the Sams. Values-based recruitment can help, but only if led and conducted properly.
There are a few recruitment phrases/mantras that I share with my students, mostly surrounding values-based recruitment. I tell them that they get what they recruit – how they choose to recruit and the activities surrounding recruitment and exposure to their organizations are the reasons someone will choose to join. You don’t have a problem with the non-members; you have a problem with whom you bring in and how you choose to bring them in.
The other thing I share is that fraternal organizations do not exist to change values; they exist to refine and enhance them. I fear all too often that chapters offer membership to someone based on potential, potential to learn what the chapter stands for and to develop the chapter values. But, can you really expect a person to do a complete 180 regarding their values, especially over the short span of 2-4 years? Not without much discussion and/or frustration, coupled with a strong desire on that member’s part to change. With all of the energy and frustration expended, it seems you’d be better off channeling that energy into strengthening the values of your current members and their representation at large, then seeking out members whose values you can refine/enhance and doing so.
Are our values important?
You bet they are. Values are important for life, for leadership, and for recruitment. We have an amazing opportunity within our organizations to grow these values in ourselves and share them with the world, a world that needs more men and women of high character.
We could spend days and years discussing the interplay between values and leadership and trying to isolate your specific values. The amazing thing is that while others may have to start from scratch, we have values passed down, values that we agreed to live, lead, and recruit by when we raised our hands and swore that oath. Character may not be specifically taught in schools, but it can be, should be, and is taught through fraternity. It’s time to allow those words we say to become actions and the center of values-based action. As the values.com movement would tell us – Values. Pass them on.