Great Groups Guru


Warren G. Bennis believes that very few great accomplishments are the work of a single person – but are a compilation of personalities and skill sets of the collective group. As one of the world’s foremost authorities on positive change, powerful partnerships and group leadership, he shares great insights into how to harness the power of Great Groups.

In fact, to identify common traits of Great Groups, Bennis studied legendary groups including Lockheed’s Skunkworks, the Xerox PARC research center, and Apple’s original Macintosh team. He found that every Great Group is extraordinary in its own way, and that there are common principles that apply to them. In my opinion, these principles apply to many of the organizations that we have featured in ICOSA.

Principle #1

Every Great Group has a superb leader

According to Bennis, Great Groups all have strong leaders, but the groups made the leaders great - that’s the paradox of group leadership. I believe the epitome of this principle is Ed Rust and State Farm Insurance. This organization is a leader in the insurance business, but serves as a role model for social development and support through education and community development. Rust is the leader who keeps his eye on the horizon, and not just on the bottom line.

Principle #2

Great Groups think they are on a mission from God.

Dr. James Jackson and Dr. Douglas Jackson of Project C.U.R.E. are on that shared mission - securing and delivering donated medical supplies and equipment to the most desperately ill and needy people in more than 100 countries around the world. They are on a fervent quest to create a better life for the poorest of the poor.

Principle #3

Great Groups manage conflict by abandoning individual egos to the pursuit of the dream.

This principle is difficult for most of us. However, the collaborative efforts of Regis University and Beth Parish have taught us to not only reach out to the whole community, but to work humbly behind the scenes to pull engaging and sometimes challenging, people to the collaboration effort.

Principle #4

Great Groups view themselves as winning underdogs

The story of Greyston Bakeries demonstrates this principle. Having created a social enterprise defined by creating profits to advance a social mission, Greyston has employed the “unemployable.” Greyston has built relationships with the best in the industry. Greyston has built a model filled with purpose - one that recognizes that, “We all have equal value, just different skill sets.”

Principle #5

Great Groups are protected from the “suits.”

Boeing’s story in our inaugural issue exemplifies this principle. In order to survive, the A&T group took drastic measures and made sweeping organizational changes in order to make their partnership with the U.S. Airforce and McDonnell Douglas succeed. Instead of another top down “initiative du jour” or “random acts of improvement,” the Great Group at Boeing worked tactically and quietly to cultivate an environment built on integration, alignment, coordination, and communication while avoiding unreasonable expectations, secrets, and static documents.

Principle #6

Great Groups pay a personal price.

Bringing hope to Yetebon, Ethiopia is the passion of Noel and Tammy Cunningham and their work with Project Mercy. Working tirelessly, with a team of devoted volunteers, the Cunningham Foundation and Project Mercy work hard to build and sustain better healthcare, feeding centers, and scholarships for children in the region. The mission: “Dream big! Maybe big things will happen.”

Principle #7

Great Groups are the product of meticulous recruiting.

John Brackney of the South Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce understands that connecting the best leaders and organizations brings in more great groups and leaders, which creates a powerful interconnected web. Common sense dictates, if you want to have a great group, surround yourself with great people.

Principle #8

Great Groups are usually young or think young.

Peter Yarrow of Peter, Paul, and Mary and founder of Operation Respect has had one of the longest successful musical careers (that all the baby boomers appreciate), but his current message appeals to the young. Recently, Peter authored a best selling children’s book Puff the Magic Dragon - and a song that almost any ten-year-old child can sing.

Principle #9

Great Groups have a real or invented enemy.

Groups do better when there is a real or invented enemy - such as the ongoing battle against disease and sickness. In our inaugural issue we highlighted the efforts of Poudre Valley Health Systems and their ongoing continuous improvement journey to save lives. Since that issue, the organization has received the highest quality recognition in the U.S. - the 2008 Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award. Proof of just one of PVHS’ Great Groups is the community case management program that pairs advance practice nurses and social workers with high-risk, chronically ill patients. Over the past three years, this group has decreased emergency visits annually by 50 percent, which has resulted in more than $850,000 in savings.

Principle #10

Real Artists Ship.

Producing a tangible outcome external to self is central to this principle. Cheryl Jensen and the efforts of SWAG and the Vail Veterans Program are prime examples. These Great Groups come together annually to make the world better – either by sending a warm coat or showing a wounded veteran that someone cares - and that is the point.

Bennis inspires my work as a CEO, publisher, Great Group leader and participant. “It is the power of the mission,” reflects Bennis, “where all great teams – and all great organizations – are built around a shared dream or motivating purpose”

In fact, Great Groups remind us how much we can accomplish working toward a shared purpose. Great Groups rely on many long-established practices of good management – effective communication, good recruitment, genuine empowerment, and personal commitment.

Bennis reminds us of the author Luciano de Crescanzo’s observation that “we are all angels with only one wing; we can only fly while embracing one another.” And, then Bennis reiterates that, “in the end, Great Groups can not be managed, only led in flight.”