Sunday, March 25, 2007

Fraternity President as "Godfather"

(This interesting commentary was sent to us by our friend "Asclepius")

How to Be a Fraternity President: As Learned from Mario Puzo’s “The Godfather”

A year ago, before returning for my sophomore year of college, I bought a movie on the recommendation of a friend. The movie was “The Godfather”, winner of the 1972 Academy Award for Best Picture and, as I would find out later, a guide to life. I watched it the first time, awestruck for three hours as the highs and lows of the Corleone Family played out before my eyes. But, on the second, third, and fourth viewings, I kept picking up on the little things that make it such a great film. I began to view the movie, not only as a masterpiece of American cinema, but as a guide to running a fraternity. As I came back to school in the fall, I began to draw parallels between running the most powerful Sicilian crime family in New York and operating a successful college social fraternity. I began to model my own behaviors after Don Corleone; in a much more legal way, of course. What follows are some of the lessons I have learned from my favorite movie of all time.

“Never let anyone outside the family know what you are thinking.”
     -Don Corleone to his son Santino, after speaking up in a meeting with Sollozo

In the early part of the movie, the Corleones meet with Virgil Sollozo, an aggressive narcotics smuggler looking for political protection. Corleone objects to his proposal on ethical grounds despite its lucrative payoff. When Sollozo tries a last ditch effort to convince the Don, Santino speaks out of turn, seeming excited about the deal. Sollozo sees this as dissension within the ranks of the Corleone Family’s leaders, and attempts to assassinate the Don, hoping that Santino will make a deal once he assumes control of the family. Sollozo saw the weakness and attacked it, when he otherwise would have moved on or tried to find protection elsewhere.

In this case, the “family” is the executive board of the fraternity. Within the confines of an exec board meeting, debate and disagreement are valued. You need a variety of opinions and points of view in order to make an educated decision as president. Debate facilitates reason, and reason usually leads to better ideas, plans, and actions from the exec board. However, when you meet with the chapter as a whole, you must present a united front and support the decision the president has made. If the VP of Programming and Recruitment openly dispute a decision supported by the President, VP of Member Development, and the Chaplain, the brothers in the fraternity will detect this as weakness. Once this weakness is sensed, decisions about the direction of the chapter lose their legitimacy, validity, and acceptance by the chapter at large.

“Their aides sat behind them, the Consiglieres up close so that they could offer any advice when needed.”
     -The peace meeting of all the Dons in America, Chapter 20

Every man, no matter how wise, needs an advisor. It seems the more powerful a man becomes, the more important his advisors become. As president, you must have a strong consigliere, an advisor or counselor. To quote Socrates, “the wisest man is the man who knows how much he does not know”. This means Don Corleone knew his weaknesses and complimented them with an appropriate consigliere. A consigliere is often just as important as the man who pulls the strings. The don is the muscle end of the family; the decision maker that leads the way. A “yes man” of a consigliere is no help; one needs an advisor strong enough to oppose the don, providing a counterpoint, or even to play devil’s advocate from time to time, in order to make sure an informed decision is made every time.

My consigliere (yes, I call him that to his face) happens to be my VP of Finance and my best friend. We get along and are best friends, but we truly compliment each other. I like to be the visible leader and a decision maker. I speak well and often, and I like my presence to be felt when I am in a leadership role. My consigliere is more reserved. He does not like the spotlight or the burden of decisions; he has assured me he prefers the position of right-hand-man rather than leader. But I can always go to him for advice and receive an honest opinion. He will call me out when I am out of line, when no one else will; he will prick my conscience from time to time, pointing out mistakes that others ignore. I value that boldness in people, because true friends can tell you when you are wrong. He is the constant voice of reason that prevents me from crossing the thin line from strong leader to tyrant. When faced with a tough situation, my consigliere’s advice is always sought before I take action. My AVC president is also a close consigliere, providing an experienced, alumni viewpoint.

“Allow a man to “make his bones” before trusting him with the family business.”

In the hierarchy of the Corleone family, there is the Don and consigliere, followed by his caporegimes, under which are many “button men”, who in turn are in charge of many young hoodlums who have only loose affiliations with the family. In order to move up the hierarchy and earn oneself more responsibility, one first had to “make his bones”, or prove himself through a job. This job often consisted of “knocking someone off” or another important action in the family’s interest. This was meant to test a man’s loyalty to the family, his competence in working the family business, and his willingness to do what is necessary for the family. Once a man “made his bones”, he received more important responsibilities and higher pay from a part of the family’s earnings. Also, it was understood if something happened to him, his family would be taken care of in his absence.

In SigEp, identify young talent and potential for leadership in your new members and call on them to perform a small job, like a chair position or organizing a small event for the fraternity. If he “makes his bones”, you can trust him with more important tasks, moving up him up the ranks to exec board or even groom him as your successor as president. Considering Sigma Phi Epsilon’s badge and it symbolic skull and crossbones, one can interpret “make his bones” as waiting for a brother to go through the Epsilon Rite of Passage/Rite of Initiation. Once a brother earns his badge over his heart, only then has he “made his bones” and with it, the trust to perform important duties to the chapter.

“A man who doesn’t spend time with his family can never be a real man.”
     -Don Vito Corleone to his godson, Johnny Fontane

Despite his ruthlessness as a business man, the Don is very traditional in his views of the family and personal life. In fact, the reason these seemingly ordinary men get into their business is to protect their families, make a better life for their children, and a refusal to go through life with someone else “pulling the strings”, or living by another’s rules. As a brother in Sigma Phi Epsilon, we usually take on the mentor role of “big brother” to a younger brother in the chapter. Do not take this responsibility lightly, for you can never underestimate the role that a good mentor can play in a young man’s life. Young men are full of energy and drive. However, it usually takes the mentorship of a “big brother” to provide focus and guidance in these challenging college years.

This particular quote is my favorite from the Godfather. It constantly reminds me of my responsibility to those having prior claim upon my substance. I’d like to think that SigEp and the Balanced Man Program have made me the man I am today. However, before my college years in the Balanced Man Program, I was part of mom and dad’s own version of the BMP for the better part of 19 years. They made me the man I am today and, I thank them every day for raising me to be a good person. The Balanced Man Program just put on the finishing touches, smoothing out all the rough edges. Make sure you spend quality time with your family, because they do not need an oath of obligation to remind themselves how much they love you.

I will never be part of the Corleone crime family, but following these guidelines, I have been a more effective leader for my “family”, Ohio Iota.