This past May, two days before my daughter was born, I was asked to give my first keynote. The event was the Greek Gala and was celebrating the leadership in the Fraternity and Sorority community. The topic was what leadership means to the Fraternity and Sorority system but was really about why I joined and my experience as a brother in Phi Kappa Tau. This is a story I had only shared with one person but I decided that it was time to be vulnerable. Those who are going through the same struggles as I did need to know that there are Student Affairs practitioners who understand and can help. It just so happens that my Dean of Students, also my supervisor, was in the room for my talk and did not fire me so I feel confident enough to share more broadly today.
So here goes nothing:
Good Evening, my name is Steve Lerer and I am the Assistant Director in the Office of Student Life working with Student Government and Leadership Programs. I am also a proud brother of the Epsilon Kappa Chapter of the Phi Kappa Tau Fraternity. I want to congratulate all of you for the work you’ve done this year to advance Greek Life on this campus. The award finalists and recipients truly represent the best of Fraternity and Sorority life. Please join me in recognizing them once again.
My experience is in leadership development and leadership theory so I was invited tonight to talk with you about that pillar, and what I believe leadership in Greek life is all about. I teach various classes in the hopes to develop the skills of leadership with the students on this campus but, in the end, for the great leaders, I believe it centers around two things.
First, a great leader is someone who can paint a vision of the future for his followers that inspires them to work harder, better, and faster to make that vision a reality. A great leader can always surround himself with people who have the skills to execute the vision but the very best leaders are the one who can stir up the emotions of their followers and create the desire to be more than they are.
Second, a great leader is someone whose quality of character is so strong that her followers not only trust her implicitly, but they want to be like her. This leader follows a code, a ritual, that demands of her only the best and her followers know it. These leaders are unshakable and move with integrity and that is why those that they lead want to emulate them and learn from them every day.
I believe that the first can be developed by anyone with a bit of charisma but it comes down to the second where fraternity and sorority life make the biggest impact. It is also there where my fraternity, in fact, saved my life. My example to you tonight the story of my own path to brotherhood, one that I have only shared once before due to the stigma that comes along with it but I know there are others out there with similar tales. I owe it to them to share the impact Fraternity or Sorority involvement can have on a person.
I arrived on campus at Rutgers University in New Jersey in Fall of 2001 as an unambitious 18 year old without much of a plan. I happen to be a legacy in my fraternity; my older brother is actually a Phi Tau and had graduated from Rutgers just that past spring. He put a word in for me with the brothers and two of them decided to come help me move into my residence hall room. Their names were Tom Howell and Jim Minardo, remember them because they have significance later.
Tom and Jim moved me in and invited me over to the fraternity for a BBQ later that night. Since I had nothing better to do I went but, kept my distance because “Frat Life” wasn’t for me. I thought, “They had nothing I wanted, and even if they did, I, could give them nothing in return”.
You might ask why, as a legacy, I thought that. Well, it comes down to my two big tenants of great leaders. I had the first in spades. I was a martial arts instructor and a two-time varsity wrestling captain. I could paint a vision that could rile up even the most complacent teammate. It really comes down to the second, character. That is where I came up short. That is why I believed I had nothing to offer.
The reason for this is because for the two years leading up to college I had developed a significant drug problem, one that would only get worse once I was alone at college. No one in my family knew, though now I believe my brother had an idea.
So, I had my “friends”, my drug using friends. I didn’t need Fraternity, and I stopped coming around. Instead I started spending my weekends with my “friends”, weekends that are often unaccounted for and were physically, emotionally, and financially damaging. Soon those weekends extended to Fridays, and then Mondays, and then Thursdays. Eventually sober days were a smaller number and easier to track and things were, unbeknownst to me, spiraling out of control.
But, through it all, Jim and Tom would connect with me every few weeks to see if I needed anything from the fraternity. I was a legacy and all, they owed me that much.
Everything came to a head for me after fall finals. I found myself 12 hours from campus, in a different country, at a 3-day event, with those who I thought were my friends. Sadly, when I overdid it, and was on the verge of what felt to be an overdose, my supposed friends left me. I was alone for hours and I truly believed that I was dying. Like anyone in that situation, helpless and alone, I began to reflect on my pathetic life and started to bargain. I swore that, if I made it through the night, I would make a change. I would find a way out of the path I was forging and be better.
Well, surprise, I didn’t die that night and I decided to make good on that progress but had no idea where to begin. Lucky for me, in mid January, I received a call from both Jim and Tom inviting me to Phi Tau’s rush week and I decided to attend. I spent every day that week with the 50 brothers watching the way they carried themselves, spoke to each other, and genuinely cared about their brothers, past, current, and future.
The week of movie nights, BBQs, and trips to get cheesesteaks in Philly struck a chord with me and I knew I wanted what they had. I remember vividly, calling my brother on the phone on Thursday night, in tears, begging him to get me an invite to their Friday dinner. “You don’t understand how much I need this”, I said to him, and all he said was “Don’t worry, I’ll handle it”.
It was that Friday, in their basement, where I spoke for the first time in front of the fraternity and their guests. I told the room what membership in their fraternity meant to me. What true brotherhood and friendship could do for me and how I had the desire to attach myself to something greater because I so desperately needed the help. I couldn’t do it alone, and Phi Kappa Tau could be my answer.
Two days later, I stood in that basement again with 9 other men from the invite dinner, pinned as an associate member in Phi Kappa Tau. In fact, I was elected to be the associate member president, responsible for the lives and the success of my fellow associates.
What should be no surprise to you by now, is that my brother who is now also my Brother knew what he was doing. There was a reason why those two men moved me into my room on day one. Tom Howell became my new member educator, and Jim Minardo my big brother.
Those next eight weeks for me were not only my time to learn what it meant to be a Phi Tau, “A man of character” they were also my time to detox. Not just from the drugs but from the friends and life I was living up until that time. Those eight weeks and the next four years, instilled me with the knowledge on how to live a life of integrity. A life worth remembering. I was given a handbook, which is called the ritual but, is in fact, a guidebook on living a better life. You all have them too! I was taught what it really meant to lead.
It is because of that knowledge and the ritual of Phi Kappa Tau that three years later, I was not only president of my chapter but one of three undergraduate national councilors for the national organization and the executive director of the largest student run philanthropy in the state of New Jersey. A philanthropy that raised over 235K for kids with cancer.
It is because of that knowledge and the ritual of Phi Kappa Tau that I chose this profession. To give back to students and build bridges to help them succeed where they might fail. To teach them through individual relationships and leadership classes, what Phi Kappa Tau taught me.
It is because of that knowledge and the ritual of Phi Kappa Tau that last year, after three years of work, I helped to start the first Collegiate Recovery Community for students in recovery from addiction in the state of California. A group that, this year, won one of two UC Regents’s awards from the UC system.
It is also because of Phi Kappa Tau that my wife, a Delta Gamma, agreed to marry me.
Your rituals provide for you the same, a code to be better and to lead better. Not just to paint a beautiful picture of the future but to also have the strength of character to create a future that betters the lives of everyone and not just yourselves.
My charge to you, and the point of this story, is to build on the success of this year. Celebrate your excellence and plan to do even better. There are hundreds of students at UC Merced with stories similar to mine who need your leadership. They need your guidance, and your ritual. It will make them better just like it made me and all of you better. You, like me, can build bridges for them and make their lives easier. Then, they can turn around, strengthen the organization, and lead others.
That, to me, is the true value of leadership in Greek Life, something you all have the opportunity to do, to build bridges for and to lead those who come after you. So go out there and lead.