Looking Back to Earth: A LESSON IN LEADERSHIP

Article excerpt

I am not certain how or why it happened. But, as is my wont, plunging in where angels fear to tread, in June of 1974 I volunteered to lead a travel group to Communist China. President Richard Nixon had just opened the great mystery door and we were one of the first groups to scramble through.

I met my charges for the first time on the plane to Beijing. They seemed pleasant enough-a mixed-aged group of 21 people chattering away excitedly, asking lots of questions, perhaps disappointed that I did not know much more than they about our upcoming adventure. As a teacher and school director, I had undertaken this assignment with the cockiness of perceived invulnerability.

Back in my halcyon college days I stumbled upon a course with a title that promised to shed light on the politically correct dialogue circulating among my friends. As it turned out, Group Dynamics bore no relation to any of my friends' or my own concerns, but led me to discover a fascinating framework in which my group (including myself) operated. At the time, I could not know its impact on me in my future role as a leader of travel groups.

I dug up those old course notes in preparation for the China tour, vaguely suspecting they might be of some value. I used the plane flight to scan their 20-year old corner-curled pages, smiling to myself at what I once innocently embraced. I remembered Ely, a member of my group of friends in college, who always sat alone in the cafeteria. Even when he sat with us, he seemed to be sitting by himself. His attempts to join in conversation did little to endear him to any of us, especially the wisecracking clique, the core of our group. Furthermore, his efforts at conversation irritated some of the others who often made sneering remarks about his politics. I found myself playing the role of sympathizer, both because I genuinely felt sorry for Ely and because as editor of the student newspaper I also often felt victimized, the target of both right and left.

Group Dynamics placed these relationships in the context of researched theory, which impressed me at the time with its logic:

1. Every group will have a victim.

2. One or two "cliques" will dominate the life of the group.

3. The leader of the group will bear the criticism of all factions.

4. Groups formed away from home or in specialized organizations with officially designated leaders may often nurture a "tattle-tale" personality.

5. The leader must be prepared to accept the barbs, blames, disapprovals, and disaffections from some members of the group, while building team loyalty with the others.

I remembered completing the course quite satisfied that I had "learned something."

In China, it did not take me long to discover that I had overlooked or underestimated the accuracy of this theory in relation to groups away from home. This recognition came on our third day in Beijing. At the breakfast table that morning, one of the student travelers sidled up to me, and with an air of entre-nous, confided that some people felt I was spending too much time with a certain member of the group who did not deserve my sympathy. I blinked for a moment, and then thanked her for the information. It was a wake-up call. Until then, I had dealt only with switching rooms around to please smokers vs. nonsmokers. What other undercurrents of disaffection had I missed? Most of these travelers seemed peaceful and civil. Why would they harbor any resentment?

The "informer's" target, Martha, a frail student from Oregon who never could be on time, giggled childishly at her own "jokes," and often used her enviable knowledge of Chinese art and history-her college major-to supplement the patter of our Chinese guides. She made no friends, and constantly sought my attention. That night I whipped out my Group Dynamics notes. And there it was in black and white-item 1, the "victim," and item number 4, the "tattle-tale."

I spent a sleepless night meditating. …