Stella Leventoyannis Harvey

How Some Groups Come Together        

I have been a member of so many diverse groups in my career and in my private life that I couldn’t begin to count them (it just goes to show you how old I’m getting). Memory being what it is I couldn’t list at the moment, the various visions, mandates, goals and accomplishments of these groups either. However, I can count on one hand the groups I’ve participated in who shine in that distinct way that is hard to define much less recreate. You know you’ve experienced something special, though, when you’re in such company because it leaves you grateful and dumbfounded and wondering why clusters of people don’t work in this fashion all the time.

I led an exceptional Alberta government team in Edmonton. And then there was a great group I worked with on my first project in Italy. I have fond memories of these two distinct groups from my career−how we came together, the kind of work we did, and the times we spent both at work and outside of work. Not to say I didn’t work with other wonderful people in my career. I did. And we did wonderful work together as well. I remember specifically the day I left my role as head of a government department responsible for, among other things, the Impaired Driving Program. That team gave me a plaque with the words inscribed, We Saved Lives. I still cry when I look at those words so many years later. I’m never likely to forget something so tangible and measureable.

But there is a difference between doing good work and working well together. And there is a further difference between a great team and an exceptional one. I think the difference is tangible. I know what it feels like. 

I’ve shed my government and corporate skin for the life of an artist and organizer (okay, so I haven’t completely given up what I used to do, but you know what I mean). Now I’m a writer (big title for one heck of a lot of grunt work that is usually coupled with gawking at a blank computer screen and hitting my head against my desk, and, oh yah−as I’m frequently reminded, by you know who−no guarantee of reasonable remuneration). In this new role, I am also a member of a critique group. What does a critique group do? We pick apart each other’s work in the hopes of making both the work and the writer better. I know this doesn’t sound like the makings of a good team experience, but somehow it is. I don’t know what to tell you, except it’s true.

When I look at my critique group and the other two groups I’ve mentioned, they have several things in common: a shared vision, clear goals and objectives, a strong belief in what we do and the need to give our very best. Seems like standard textbook stuff. Right? Except to pull this out of a textbook and make it real, there are a few other ingredients necessary.

Leadership is essential to start with. Yes, I know. I know. You’ve heard all of this before. But what I’m talking about might not be found in your MBA textbooks. By leadership I mean the altruistic type (heavy focus on altruism) where the leader strives to understand each team member’s potential and removes any barriers that might inhibit or stall a team member from reaching and exceeding that potential. These leaders walk this talk and by example motivate team members to act in the same selfless manner.

The second ingredient has to do with character. No, not the characters I write about, but rather the character (defined as ‘the mental and moral qualities distinctive to a person’) of the individuals of the group. Sure we all have different personalities. In the groups I’ve mentioned, some members were shy, others were loud, and some were driven by work, others by their families and outside interests. None of that mattered. What mattered was a specific character trait in each of the individuals: respect for one another. With such respect there is no ego to mess with.

This brings me back to my critique group. We respect each other enough to be truthful in the feedback we provide about our work. This truthfulness in turn allows us to trust not only each other, but also ourselves as writers. This trust encourages us to further share our work as well as some of the most intimate details of our fears and aspirations for that work. And this intimacy leads to more honesty, more trust, more intimacy. And as this endless circle is strengthened so is this intrinsic belief: when one individual succeeds, we all succeed.

Gore Vidal once said, “whenever a friend succeeds, a little something in me dies.” I beg to differ. Again, when one of us succeeds we all succeed and are better and happier for it.  Perhaps Mr. Vidal wasn’t a happy camper.

Sure, you’ll say, but what has your group accomplished with all this touchy feely, airy-fairy stuff? I could list a number of publications we’ve been in, awards we’ve won and books we’ve had published. Note each use of the word, ‘we’ in the last sentence. These are just results. It’s the way we’ve come to these results and to each other that is the real success story. 

I know this blog is already too long, but I’d like to finish with another quote. This time from someone who thinks along the same lines as I do, Captain James Cook (British explorer). “Do just once what others say you can’t do, you will never pay attention to their limitations again”.

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