Making the group bigger than the sum of its parts

The point of a group is to be more than the sum of its parts. That goes for a family, a sports team, a company — and a nation.

Otherwise, there are just individuals. Cause for thought as a new year begins and we resolve to do better.

The point of leadership is create, cajole, coax or corral that surplus from a group: points on the board, profits and prospects, a strong economy and clear sense of ourselves.

In part leadership means getting individuals to give up some of their individuality to the interests of the group. The return to the individuals is a share in the greater good.

And leadership in part is getting from each individual the most the individual can give. That means valuing the individual’s individuality. The return to the group is a greater aggregate contribution.

Groups got a bad name last century because communists made citizens slaves of the state and fascists made them servants of the leader. The individual had no intrinsic value. Submerged individuals give less than free individuals.

That sort of group offends Scottish Enlightenment ideals of personal liberty, to which the majority of us in this country are heirs.

Yet in a team we understand instinctively that we are each individually only as good as the team — not as its servant but as its equal contributor, owner and beneficiary along with the other members of the team.

So one of two conclusions can be drawn about the All Blacks’ knockout in the quarter-finals of the World Cup which they had been favourites to win. Either they played below their potential, in which case questions arise about the coach, or the coach did draw out of them a performance greater than the sum of their individual talents and application and we might usefully learn from this experience to prepare for fourth or lower in 2011.

For a top coach look to Peter Godfrey. Who? Godfrey took teams — choirs — from this nowhere country with no reputation for music and made them the among the best the world, winners of prestigious competitions.

But, more than that, reaching past the elites, he coached “all-comers” choirs into excellence. Unfailingly positive, polite, courteous, never bullying or retributive, an invigorator and inspirational are some of the terms used about him by those who were part of that excellence. He was made an Arts Foundation Icon Artist in 2005 and said of his award he “was aghast. Amazed”. What did Godfrey do? He elicited the very best from his singers (and instrumentalists — he was a chamber orchestra conductor too) and made out of those “very bests” something better. Correspondingly, his choristers pushed themselves to do better than their very bests. He offered them, says one of the “all-comers”, fulfilment.

That is, he was — is — good for the soul as well as good for the group.

The likes of super-coach Godfrey don’t magically materialise in myriad numbers. So, turning inwards, we settle for make-do, mediocrity and miserly effort.

But around you are thousands of leaders. Some have high profiles and front-page palaver over their appointments, styles, strategies and sophistries. But most work in small, unfashionable corners, making of their groups more than the sum of the parts, making living a little better.

We don’t much celebrate these coaches. We salivate over crisis, conflict and killing in a vicarious secondhand world where deceit, not trust, despoliation, not construction, division, not union rule. It’s entertaining, frightening and scandalising, counterpoint to our humdrumness, squinted at through the lace curtains of our big media village.

In the firsthand world we actually live in we choose, or hope for, trust, not deceit, construction, not despoliation, union, not division. Without those qualities, our families, teams, companies couldn’t function. We would be atomised individuals.

And atomised individuals is what we discern in the secondhand world through the media lace curtains — lace curtains woven out of our yen for fun, fright and scandal. We mistake that secondhand world for the nation, when actually the nation is the sum of all our firsthand worlds.

So we despair and dismiss and, in rising numbers, depart.

And then we blame the coach — the politicians. They are easy meat: our politics, sprung from our law, is rooted in confrontation and conflict. Politicians and lawyers are our obliging gladiators.

A young Austrian woman last month showed an alternative. A moment’s inattention on a road devastated two families. Instead of a lawyerly fight, she met with the families, gave up her savings to them and became part of their grief and they in turn became part of her grief, no longer individuals to each other.

It is a sad but warm story: not a lace curtain in sight.

So while resolving today to get less fat and belch less carbon we might also think about the groups that make sense of our lives and resolve to make more of our part in them. Then coaches could work their magic and this mini-nation could grow.