Organizing Genius

 In Books, Business, Giving, Leadership, People, Philanthropy, Vocation

A.S. Neill was the iconoclast founder of the Summerhill School in England. His educational philosophy of allowing children to pursue their own interests free from the interference of artificial standards, adult experts and the use of “teaching through fear” gave him both accolades and scorn.

Neill himself, while a poor student, became one of the most influential (and controversial) educators of his time. He believed that the best thing teachers could do was to leave children alone to develop naturally. All children, he contended, have an innate desire to become adults and that is not possible with a teacher or adult hovering over them attempting to teach them lessons or tell them what to do all the time.

In his mind, all children have a particular “genius” that is too often either forced to conform or wasted because it is never encouraged to grow.

His great strength was believing in that genius but his great challenge was creating an organization that could allow “freedom without license.” As a young man who was a poor student (and future schoolteacher), there was something in Neill’s approach that captured my imagination. Looking back, it’s probably a good thing we never met!

After the distinguished professor and author Warren Bennie died, I re-read a number of his books and articles. The one book that has shaped me the most is Organizing Genius, which he wrote with Patricia Ward Biederman.

I would love to have heard a conversation between Warren Bennis and A.S. Neill as I think Organizing Genius would have been the missing link. Both men believed in the ability of people to find and develop their truest selves. Both believed in the process of encouraging self-discovery and the responsibility of great talent. Both were characterized by hopefulness in the next generation.

However, Warren Bennis also studied and discovered the principles for organizing extremely talented and sometimes difficult and idiosyncratic people. He made the transition from our fascination with individual genius to the role of a particular kind of leader in “Great Groups” accomplishing extraordinary things.

Whether it is a group of two or 20, the creative power of the group is more than simply individuals working together. The old adage of 1+1=3 is actually true, and the myth of the lone genius working in solitude is just that – a myth. As written in The New York Times recently, “Fortunately, a more truthful model is emerging: the creative network, as with the crowd-sourced Wikipedia or the writer’s room at ‘The Daily Show’ or — the real heart of creativity — the intimate exchange of the creative pair, such as John Lennon and Paul McCartney and myriad other examples with which we’ve yet to fully reckon.”

Years ago, Peter Drucker pointed out the difference between the “genius with a staff” and the leader building a creative team. As donors, how do we find Great Groups and back them? How do we encourage the growth of these Great Groups and their leaders? How do we incorporate some of the same principles into our own organizations?

Leaders hoping to create a Great Group recruit the most talented people. They love talent and talent loves them. They find each other.

Leaders of Great Groups are not great leaders alone; they are great leaders in a fertile relationship with other talent. Yet, there is one person who acts as “maestro,” or the “practical dreamer,” organizing the genius of others. “Within the group, the leader is often a good steward, keeping the others focused, eliminating distractions, keeping hope alive in the face of setbacks and stress.”

Leaders of Great Groups find ways to unite individual talent in a common mission. “This all important task acts as a social lubricant, minimizing frictions. Sharing information and advancing the work are the only real obligations.”

Great groups are engaged in “holy wars,” and members know they will be expected to make sacrifices. They collectively feel they are on a mission from God.

Members of Great Groups see themselves as underdogs: “The feisty David hurling fresh ideas at a big, backward-looking Goliath.”

Great Groups always have an enemy and part of the fun is the war. There is someone, some entrenched idea, some competitor that makes their work urgent and important.

Leaders of Great Groups must protect the group from all distractions, threats, and intimidation. They are stewards and not celebrities. They free the group to focus on what is essential – not paperwork and reports. “One of the simple pleasures of Great Groups is that they are almost never bureaucratic.”

Great Groups ship. They work in “dreams with deadlines” and are places of action, not think tanks or retreat centers. They deliver.

Members of Great Groups say they would have done the work for nothing. The reward is the creative process itself.

I’ve outgrown the simple (but attractive) idealism of Summerhill but have experienced a few Great Groups in my life. I would never choose any other way of working now. They have been the most fulfilling experiences of my career, and I encourage you to back one, start one or be part of one. Warren Bennis is right. I would have done it for nothing.

Fred Smith
Fred Smith is a graduate of Denver University and Harvard Divinity School. He spent several years as teacher and administrator at Charlotte Christian School and The Stony Brook School before co-founding Leadership Network with Bob Buford and serving as President for 12 years. Fred is the Founder and President of The Gathering, an international association of individuals, families and private foundations giving to Christian ministries. Fred will tell you his true vocation is that of a Sunday School teacher and it is this role for which he would most like to be remembered. Fred and his wife, Carol, have two grown daughters and a son-in-law. They also have three well-loved grandchildren.
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  • Stephan
    Reply

    Well done maestro

    • Fred
      Fred
      Reply

      Thank you, Stephan.

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