Groupthink

Groupthink

When George Orwell wrote his prescient book, 1984, he coined a term that describes a leadership-destroying force. That term was “groupthink.”

Orwell used this term to describe the human tendency to buy into the thinking of the crowd, to take hold of popular and prevailing ideas merely because they are popular and prevailing—but not because they are true.

“Groupthink” is always a temptation. We all want to belong. We want to be cool and well thought of. Most of us also don’t want to make waves or be controversial. So, we affirm the ideas handed to us. We make the chant of the crowd our own chant. The consensus becomes our opinion and we hold to it tightly to prove we belong.

I confront “groupthink” constantly as I work with leaders. It is as though some leaders melt into the group—their staff, their team, the board—and cease to be individuals. They become mouthpieces for the group’s view and judge everything by what the group “thinks.”

The problem is that when a leader ceases to be an individual and ceases to make the contribution he or she can make with their unique gifts, they cease to be a leader.

I find this most often when I ask some leaders what they think about a given matter. I might ask, for example, why they established a certain policy. Often, the answer I hear is not about what the leader thought best but what his board or “team” believed. This is fine, but I often get the sense that the leader has melded into the group and ceased to stand on his own.

I remember that I spoke at a church once. It went well and afterward I wanted to engage the pastor about some things I had said. I asked him what he thought. He said the people liked me. I asked him again for his thinking. He gave me the response of his board. I put it to him again in the most personal way— “Pastor, what did my talk make you feel?” Again, he answered for a group. Five times I asked him for his experience. He never answered personally. He was able to think only in terms of a group response.

We all need to be able to serve, and we all should be able to comply with a consensus. We need to be teachable. Yet, this isn’t the same thing as losing ourselves entirely. A consensus isn’t a mandate to become invisible. We serve best when we serve with our unique gifts and views—all while being humble enough to work under authority and as part of a team.

In short, great leadership is the art of using your gifts to make the group better. You can’t do this if you can’t distinguish yourself from the group.

Be you. Be strong. Let your team temper you. Be better together.

That’s it. Have a great week.

Stephen


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