Why we need more and better groups to support social sector leaders

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about leadership development for the social sector, and how best to design programs that create the longest-lasting impact.

The starting question I’ve been asking is: what is it about the kind of leadership required for this kind of work that’s special, different, unique?

One of characteristics of this work is that it is long-term by nature. While it sounds (and is) exciting and motivating to “live a life of purpose,” the secretly difficult part is that when you’re ultimately measuring your success in terms of societal change, it’s easy to feel like you’re not making any real progress. Growing topline revenues is one thing; overcoming systemic bias and exclusion in a national education system is another.  One lends itself to quarterly reports; the other measures progress over decades. 

This is part of the reason that burnout is so common. It’s not because the work can be grueling, though it can be. It’s because the change one is working towards happens at a communal and a societal level, not just at the level of an institution or a company. To counteract the natural sense of alone-ness that this type of work can create, those engaged in social change need to create and embed themselves in strong and supportive cohorts of other change-makers, others who are walking this path with them.

Jonathan Haidt, in Chapter 10 of his book The Righteous Mind, beautifully captures the texture of how groups can transform the experience of individuals. In describing army veterans’ experience in battle, he quotes William McNeil, an army veteran and historian.  “McNeill studied accounts of men in battle and found that men risk their lives not so much for their country or their ideals as for their comrades-in-arms.” McNeill continues:

Many veterans who are honest with themselves will admit, I believe, that the experience of communal effort in battle . . . has been the high point of their lives. . . . Their “I” passes insensibly into a “we,” “my” becomes “our,” and individual fate loses its central importance. . . . I believe that it is nothing less than the assurance of immortality that makes self sacrifice at these moments so relatively easy. . . . I may fall, but I do not die, for that which is real in me goes forward and lives on in the comrades for whom I gave up my life.

This observation speaks to a paradox of social change work: we get into it because of a sense of higher purpose, but we need something beyond this high-minded objective to sustain us beyond the first few months or few years. To pull that off – to succeed at recommitting ourselves time and again to our higher purpose – we need to be part of a collective. The right kind of collective (cohort, comrades in arms…the language is less important) helps our ego-driven selves dissolve into the acts of service that further the objectives of the group as a whole.

It strikes me that the notion of the heroic entrepreneurial leader isn’t helping us here. This isn’t a framing that pushes us to create the kinds of infrastructure that help larger numbers of people develop and sustain their commitment to a life of service. Amazing generals don’t materialize fully formed, they emerge from a collective that has a strong sense of norms, identity, and values as well as a well-honed approach to tackle the problems at hand.   In fact, while it’s certainly lonely at the top nearly everywhere, I’d argue that it’s lonelier still at the top of a social purpose organization that has a multi-decades time horizon to make change.

This is not a path one can or should walk alone.

What this means is that one of the biggest and highest-leverage way to invest in this ecosystem may be to facilitate the creation of the sort of deep and lasting bonds needed to sustain a lifetime of commitment to the work of making a difference.

Four tips for better group decision-making

I’m most of the way through Bruce Feiler’s The Secrets of Happy Families.  The book takes the best, recent insights on how groups/organizations perform and applies it to families and raising kids.  This results in surprising suggestions like using agile development principles to make getting kids to school on time less stressful or coming together to write down and display family mission statements.  Feiler is non-doctrinaire in his writing, avoiding “must do” and “top 7” lists in favor of a series of surprising, useful, often counter-intuitive recommendations, many of which seem worth a real shot.

Outside of the book’s relevance for anyone raising kids, The Secrets of Happy Families is also a great refresher on new thinking in organizational behavior.  There’s lots to mine here, and I thought Feiler’s summary of four factors for better group decision-making were particularly on point.  (all the quotations below are from The Secrets of Happy Families).

  1. Too Few Cooks Spoil the Broth.  This addresses the wisdom of crowds (Surowiecki) and how large groups with the right information can be smarter than the smartest person in the group.  The part that I found most interesting was: “Uzzi [a sociologist] analyzed 321 Broadway musicals and found that teams of people who had never met did not work well together and produced more flops.  Meanwhile, groups that had collaborated before were also not that successful, because they tended to rehash ideas and not come up with fresh concepts.  The sweet spot was a mix of strong and weak ties, where trust existed but new ideas could flow.”  To me this speaks to the need to have fluidity of both people and ideas (often from outside the organization) to get to the best decisions.
  2. Vote first, talk later. “I was shocked to learn that groups are better at making decisions if participants express their views at the start of a meeting before they’ve had a chance to listen to anybody else.  Countless studies have shown that once the discussion begins, the people who speak first tend to persuade others of their position, even when their positions are wrong.  Daniel Kahneman offered a helpful blueprint. ‘A simple rule can help: before an issue is discussed, all members should be asked to write a very brief summary of their position.’   This seems like the easiest tactic of all to employ – simply ask people to write down what they think at the start of an important conversation.
  3. Hold a premortem.  “As the conversation reaches a climax, it’s important to encourage people to express their true opinions, especially if they disagree with the group…psychologist Gary Klein calls [this] a ‘premortem.’  When teams engage in prospective hindsight…they increase their ability to identify what might possibly go wrong…[e.g.] ‘Let’s imagine it’s a year from now.  We’re following this plan, and it hasn’t worked out.  Let’s write down what we think would have gone wrong. Klein says the main value of a premortem is to legitimize doubts and let skeptics voice their concerns.”     What’s powerful about this is that it engages us in a concrete thought experiment that grounds a conversation of “what if’s” and complex dependencies.  By placing ourselves in a future space, we can see the decision from a new vantage point and understand the risks and opportunities of the different paths we might take.
  4. The Law of Two Women.  “One night I was having dinner with an executive at Google, and I asked him to tell me the most significant change he’s seen in how his company runs meetings.  Without hesitating, he told me they always make sure there is more than one woman in the room.  He then told me about the study that led to this principle…”  I won’t summarize the subsequent MIT study – the punchline is “groups that had a higher proportion of females were more effective.  These groups were more sensitive to input from everyone, more capable of reaching compromise, and more efficient at making decisions.”      This one is fascinating and, again, very easy to implement.

Increasingly I’m coming to appreciate the importance and power of small groups that come together to make decisions.  I’m also coming to understand that just putting a handful of smart, effective people together and saying “be an effective group” is a pretty terrible strategy.  You need trust and safety and mutual investment and a sense of shared purpose and higher goals.  And you also benefit greatly from tactics that are proven to result in better decisions.

This list seems like a great way to start the important work of making your groups as high-performing as the individuals in them.