I’m an active member of a number of black organizations—fraternal and professional. In one of the professional organizations, I serve on two committees and have done so for a few years. Last year, during the national convention for this organization, candidates for national president made their rounds to each of the committee meetings to solicit our votes. For each candidate, I had two questions: “What is the biggest challenge facing the organization?” “How will you effectively address that challenge?” The first question was fairly easy for each candidate to answer—hemorrhaging members and that being tied to the organization’s finances being in shambles. The second question left each candidate stumped. Not a one had an answer. I was dumbfounded, but I probably shouldn’t have been.

What I saw in this one professional organization, I’ve seen at an alarming rate in black Greek-letter organizations (BGLOs). That is leaders seeking office not because they can identify problems their organization faces and lay-out solutions that are likely to be efficient, effective, and impactful. Rather, the way we promote leaders in BGLOs is if and to what extent they are next in the queue. While this, in and of itself, is not a problem. The problem lies in the fact that BGLOs face real challenges, and for the most part, we elect leaders—especially at the highest rungs—who cannot adequately address that challenges we face.

Take, for example, hazing. How do we elect national heads who can significantly move the needle on this issue? They must come from a pool of individuals who have served as chapter president, area head, state head, and then regional head. The problem is that in serving in these capacities, such individuals almost never have time to deepen their understanding of issues—e.g., hazing—in all of their complexity. They certainly don’t have time to identify and test the solutions needed to significantly move the needle on an issue like hazing. The issue is not necessarily one of intelligence, or education, or dedication to their, respective, organization. It could, simply be, a matter of time. Think about this: A married man, father of two, has a middle-manager job, is active in his church, and must spend twenty hours a week completing fraternity-related paperwork and traveling to fraternity events and functions. When will he have time to understand hazing in all of its complexity? The truth is, he won’t; but as he moves up the chain of leadership in his fraternity, he comes ever-closer to becoming the national head.

Hierarchiologist, Laurence Peter articulated this dynamic with his Peter Principle theory whereby the selection of a “leader” for a position within an organization is based on the their performance in their current role, rather than on abilities relevant to the intended role. As such, they only stop being promoted once they can no longer perform effectively. The Peter Principle follows from the idea that anything that works will be used in progressively more challenging applications until it fails. In short, promotion occurs up to the individuals “level of incompetence.”

The Peter Principle at work.

The Peter Principle at work.


The irony, in the context of BGLOs, is that you only, truly, get to observe this level of incompetence once the leader is, or on the cusp of being, promoted to the highest position. For example, I’m not convinced that most BGLO members reasonably expect a chapter president, area head, state head, or regional head to have a sophisticated understanding of hazing and develop and implement an effective and efficient solution to the problem. However, members often look to the national head or candidates for the position of national head to have a vision vis-à-vis hazing. I think that’s because hazing a longstanding issue within BGLOs and one that is national in scope and necessitates national resources.

The national head, or candidate for that post, has some options in articulating a vision for addressing hazing, or any other major issue confronting their BGLO—all of which are consistent with the Peter Principle. First, the candidate/leader could tell the membership that (s)he neither fully understands the issue nor has what will amount to an effective and efficient solution to the problem. As a second option, the candidate/leader could know in their heart that they don’t understand the problem in all its complexity and don’t have a solution. However, the candidate/leader could attempt to simplify the problem—e.g., tell members that hazing persists because of bad undergraduates, telling of war stories, lack of sisterhood, intergenerational trauma from slavery, etc. In short, the candidate/leader could engage in causal reductionism and then provide a simple solution that only they have, or so they would argue. A third option, the candidate/leader could sell members on the idea that the candidate/leader understands hazing in all its complexity and has a solution appropriate for the nature and scope of the problem. The challenge here is that, as a host of cognitive biases illuminate, people are often overconfident with respect to their understanding of matters where they are unaware of the depth and complexity of the problem—i.e., unknown unknowns.

In short, from an organizational dynamics perspective, BGLOs will never truly move the needle on hazing, in part, because the organizations don’t fully appreciate the nature and scope of the problem. But also, the way in which BGLO members elect leaders—especially national heads, those who hold a significant amount of vision-setting and resource-allocating power within these groups—is resistant to the ascension of those within their ranks who would have the skill-sets to tackle this, and other, issues.