Saturday, January 12, 2008

Lessons from "Organizing Genius"

The twentieth century produced a number of “great groups”—the Disney animation studio, the Manhattan Project, the 2000 Clinton election team—to name a few. These groups did not depend on a “great man” to make things happen, but this doesn’t mean that they were leaderless. Quite to the contrary, they were led by unique, gifted leaders who knew how to bring together creative people and facilitate their collaboration with one another. This is the theme of Organizing Genius, an older book (1997) by leadership guru Warren Bennis and his associate Patricia Ward Biederman.


The writing style is a bit hard to follow and some chapters seem to be “cut and paste” work. At least the authors do bring together the key principles in a chapter entitled “Take-Home Lessons.” If you want to get the gist of the book, read this portion. In this summary chapter, the authors provide fifteen key characteristics of great groups:

1. Greatness starts with superb people.
2. Great groups and great leaders create each other.
3. Every great group has a strong leader. The key quality of that leader is character.
4. The leaders of great groups love talent and know where to find it. Leaders of great groups are willing to recruit people more talented than they are.
5. Great groups are full of talented people who can work together. This doesn’t mean that the group is always amiable, but they find ways to challenge each other and still survive.
6. Great groups think they are on a mission from God (of course, we might question the theological validity of this claim).
7. Every great group is an island—but an island with a link to the mainland. They need a certain amount of isolation—often creating a unique culture—but they need a link to the resources of the larger world as well.
8. Great groups see themselves as winning underdogs. They have leaders who are “dealers in hope.”
9. Great groups always have an enemy. When they don’t have an enemy, they make one up. It may simply be the status quo.
10. People in great groups have blinders on. They often sacrifice family and friends to their work. They tend to avoid reality and the mundane.
11. Great groups are optimistic, not realistic.
12. In great groups, the right person has the right job. Of course, this is largely due to the work of the leader.
13. The leaders of great groups give them what they need and free them from the rest. If there is a bureaucracy, the leader either cuts through it or serves as a buffer between the creative staff and the bureaucrats.
14. Great groups ship. In other words, they produce. They are not just “pie in the sky” folks; they actually create something and deliver it to the public for use.
15. Great work is its own reward.

This list shows both the pluses and minuses of being part of a great group. How many of us would be willing to intentionally sacrifice our families for our work (although I have seen some ministers who do that and have been tempted to do so myself from time to time)? Another negative is that the groups described here tended to be “boys’ clubs” and to marginalize women.

Although few of us will ever be members of a great group, there are some of these “take-home lessons” that we can implement. Leaders do need to know how to free their team up from too many mundane tasks so that they can exercise their creativity. Character is a nonnegotiable for a leader. Team members need to trust their leader and know that he or she will help and confront appropriately without personal bias. They also need to find and employ the best people even if they are smarter than the leader! (I have been fortunate to be able to do this on more than one occasion.) Ultimately, leaders must lead their teams to produce. There may be failures and dead ends along the way, but at the end of the day, good stewardship requires some worthwhile results.

This is not one of Bennis’ better books. By its nature, the book is derivative and dependent on the research and writing of others. The authors have provided a helpful chapter on “Source Notes” that details the original works on which they based this book. If the reader wishes to learn more, these sources (often by people who were actually members of the groups described) are invaluable.

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