Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Group Support

I made a joke as three of us walked across an office building plaza: the chief executive officer, the big vice president, and me. I told them that Shannon, the executive I report to, had announced she was going to be away for a day in order to take some leadership training. I said my response to Shannon, after first making sure I was out of arm's reach, was to quip, "More training? Great! I love leaders, without leaders I'd have no one to blame!" The CEO laughed, but the VP responded with less levity, more gravity: "Blame—ain't that the truth."

I think a lot of us "don't get it" that we need to honor those willing to be leaders. And no, this needn't mean jealousy or resentment. Such emotions are a big concern of a colleague, call him Sean, who is excruciatingly democratic. Sean is idealistically against hierarchy or "better than." Me too.

Last week I was standing with Sean by his open car trunk; I noticed that lying loose in the trunk he had a "certificate of accomplishment." I teased him, "Hey, you're supposed to put that parchment somewhere real safe where it can't get wrinkled." It turned out that he wasn't sure how being honored with a certificate fitted into his ideals. After admitting I didn't have a clue where my own certificate was, I asked if he'd like to hear my own alternate theory of groups. Sean idealistically said "yes" meaning he was not afraid to change, and not afraid to be bored.

"Give me an example," I challenged, "of a group where people share a common purpose." Sean gazed around for inspiration and said, "A group going down to help the people of Hondura." So I spun a theory and gave him an alternate scenario to add to his view of life. Then what? Did he grin ear to ear, pump my hand, and thank me for "showing me the light?" Of course not. A new theory of leadership or groups is like a new word for your vocabulary: life gets a little more interesting, and whenever the time comes around the "more precise" word will be there, waiting, but in the meantime life goes on.

It was Professor Herbert Thelen of Chicago who put me on to his "half" theory. According to my memory, Thelen noted how in a formal group every individual is motivated half by the group goal, and half by an individual goal. Half, "I want to help the poor Hondurans," and half—? One fellow wants to get good at building things "on the square and on the level." One lady wants to practice her accounting skills. One chap values the camaraderie; one guy wants to be near a certain brunet. I note this not with sadness at the lack of idealistic mono-motivation, but with affection: I like how my fellows are so human—just like me.

Really, who cares about the people having multiple motivations, as long as everyone is contributing to the group goals? Good leaders have a good perspective on unseen motivations: At leadership school, when it comes to problematic behavior, students are told to focus solely on seeing and changing an employee's behavior, not the person's inner psychology.

As our hypothetical group is down helping the Hondurans, one lady is willing to take on the stress of leadership, one man tirelessly stuffs envelopes to write asking for more help, and one woman always offers neck rubs. Better still, Hondura being so dusty, this lady humbly washes everyone's feet—just as Jesus would do. While this is going on, while these three make extra efforts at helping the group—with leadership, envelopes and feet—I think there needs to be some extra compensation. My response therefore is to honor these three. Jesus did, remember? He had his own "half theory:"Appealing to people's practical side, Jesus said people who serve get a higher place in heaven.

Those who heard Jesus, and adopted a service ethic, would presumably, in the fullness of time, give of themselves only half because of "practical reasons" and half for a new service ethic, a new way of life. Sean might say, "Yes but... people should all, right now, be at a higher level of wanting to help—and so maybe we shouldn't honor the "extra" helpers." My reply would be, "Sure but... people are only human. That's why Jesus taught with parables—not essays—because not all people were ready for a higher level: "Hearing, they understood not.""

Sean might be troubled by this paradox: Everyone in the group is honored for helping the Hondurans, and some are more honored than others. This confounded paradox fades when you step back to see the big picture.

I remember being confounded at a student party in early December once. A friend said, "People should be nice, every day should be like Christmas." I was nodding when two philosophy majors gleefully chimed in to say, "Then what would we do for Christmas?"...Yes. Uncommon effort will never be common.

And so I honor and support anyone's efforts, both the common and especially the uncommon. On a functional team, we all support each other, right? It follows that an honored leader is one who (besides other things) supports the group to move further along towards achieving the goal. And of course a person who washes feet is also supporting the group, and therefore is also a leader.

Of course if I honor this person, encouraging her to carry on; if, say, I lead the applause for her, then I too am supporting the group. Hence I too am a leader, a leader by example.

I think it follows logically that it is fine to make an extra effort to support the group, without feeling "less than," by giving "constructive" feedback to my boss, an effort made as part of problem solving... but while doing so I don't blame my leaders. Not to their faces and not behind their backs. I have no time for "non constructive" useless negativity.

And now I have to laugh. I am so looking forward to telling my ultra-democratic colleague that right where he is, right in his current position, he can be a leader.

Sean Crawford
between snow falls
Calgary, March 2009

~British Honduras is now known as Belize (Be-leez)

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