A Powerful Path to Personal and Leadership Development
Publication date: 09/01/2011
IN THE INTRODUCTION, WE EXAMINED THE BENEFITS of having a small, intimate group in our lives to support us during challenging times and enable us to live lives of joy and fulfillment. Let’s begin by focusing on what True North Groups are and how they work.
TRUE NORTH GROUPS
What is a True North Group? It consists of six to eight people who meet on a regular basis to share their personal challenges and discuss important questions in their lives. At various times your True North Group will function as a nurturer, a grounding rod, a truth teller, and a mirror. At other times the group functions as a challenger or an inspirer. At their best, the members of your group serve each other as caring coaches and thoughtful mentors.
Your True North Group is characterized by high levels of trust between your members, something that may be hard to find at work or even in your community. When you feel self-doubts, your group helps build the courage and ability to cope. The trust of your group enables all members to be open and intimate, building on your shared commitment to maintain strict confidentiality.
Your group will stimulate your beliefs about the important issues of life and help you think through the challenges you face. Group members will give you constructive feedback when you need it most. Most importantly, your group is a safe haven when you are facing difficult times and experiencing stress and distress — something all of us encounter from time to time.
OUR TRUE NORTH GROUP
To get a better understanding of what a True North Group is and how it operates, let’s take an in-depth look at the group we formed in the spring of 1975. The eight of us had participated in a retreat weekend and were searching for ways to continue the openness, sharing, and intimacy we had experienced.
We decided to meet weekly in the living room of a neighborhood church on Wednesday mornings from 7:15 to 8:30 a.m. Thirty-six years later, the group meets every Wednesday in that same place. Three members of our original group are still active and the others have joined us over the years. One of our members died, another got divorced and moved away, and the others were transferred out of town.
Our current group includes two lawyers, five businessmen, and an architect. Each person brings to the group a unique perspective on life, on beliefs, and on human nature. In spite of significant differences in our faiths and beliefs, we have a common commitment to sharing our lives openly, respecting our differences, and discussing the challenges and difficulties we face.
The Group’s Importance to Our Members
What’s the glue that has kept the group together all these years? Group member Peter Gillette, former president of a large bank, says, “It’s one of those mysterious combinations of the people, setting, experiences, mutual respect, and humor.”
The flexibility of our topics makes it conducive for all elements of personality and articulation to thrive. There is a bonding, camaraderie, and trust. It’s the differences between us that provide the spark that makes the conversation so stimulating.
Business executive Tom Schaefer explains, “Our group has become the most important community in my life, other than my immediate family.” He adds,
It’s a community of seven brothers that has helped guide my life in terms of spiritual formation, work, and personal growth. It continually challenges my beliefs about life, values, and spirit. It provides a safe place where I can examine these issues, reflect on them, and understand what others feel about such important matters. These guys operate as my special board of advisors, as they provide a lot of life coaching.
Our group was so important that there were times I left my job in part to stay with the group rather than move out of town. I knew I couldn’t duplicate it somewhere else and didn’t want to give it up. I’ve always wanted to feel proud of my work and my actions in front of my pals, so I ask myself how the group would react about something I’m considering. It provides a moral compass, a way of checking on my sense of what’s right and wrong.
The Group’s Process
As we gather each week, we have a brief check-in to enable people to bring up anything significant in their lives. Then one of us initiates discussion of the program. Responsibility for leading the program is rotated every two weeks, so each of us takes the lead about six times a year.
Although many groups may choose to hire their own professional facilitator to prepare programs and lead discussions, our group prefers having our members take responsibility for facilitating, to ensure everyone feels equal responsibility for the group. (See Resource 7 for a complete discussion of facilitator options.) Attorney Ron Vantine explains, “We decided not to have an expert or a full-time facilitator because we didn’t want to look to an expert for the answers. Instead, we wanted to come up with questions that were crucial to us.”
On a regular basis, we take a check to be sure that everyone in the group is feeling satisfied and fulfilled. Periodically, we ask ourselves, How are we doing? Are we getting out of our heads and into our hearts and souls? Each of us does that to varying degrees. Some of us are better at asking questions and guiding the conversation; others excel at giving small seminars.
Addressing Life’s Most Important Questions
Our group provides opportunities to challenge our views and grow from the questions. Chuck Denny, former CEO of a large telecommunications company, highlights the importance of deep discussions: “We talk about our values and where they come from.” He asks,
What has been their importance in our lives? Have they been tested? Do we stay true to them under stress? It’s introspective, not just intellectual. What are we doing to make society better? How do we allocate time between ourselves, our family, and society? These discussions have helped me create the road map for each phase of my life.
Our group has grappled with these questions through happy and sad experiences. There is no judgment and no critical analysis of our beliefs. We have struggled with them in our personal spiritual journeys, as we move in and out of doubt about what we believe. The questions never seem to change, but the answers are different when you’re 69 than when you’re 39.
Opening Up and Sharing Intimately
Over the years, we have built relationships of trust and intimacy. Vantine notes, “The group enriches my life and my understanding of what I want out of life and what I can contribute. The discussions make me feel my values are worthy because they are shared by other men I admire and respect.” He explains,
These conversations are much different than ones with social friends, colleagues at work, or even family members. I know only a couple of men where I can get to such a level of depth. With us, it happens every week. That’s because we have the trust, environment, and relationships that have built up over all these years. The group has a unique place in my life.
There is never a clash of egos in our group. None of us feel we have to prove anything to the rest of the group. If that happened, the person would be called on it. None of us is trying to impress the others with our titles, power, and influence, or suggest that we have all the answers. We all have more questions than answers.
It wasn’t always this way. It took a number of years to let go of our egos and to be willing to share our weaknesses and vulnerabilities. Typically, we find that it takes men longer than women to break through their defenses to become more reflective and less defensive.
Vantine adds, “There are few places in life where I have a chance to talk about significant issues, particularly things that are personal. It’s unusual to get into those topics in an environment where everyone feels secure, has a high level of trust, and wants to learn from each other.”
What are the benefits of this level of intimacy and openness? St. Paul attorney Jonathan Morgan says, “The group provides a venue for discussing existential questions and life’s mysteries that stretches the mind almost to the breaking point.”
We share our challenges, obstacles, joys, and times of sadness. We’re there to help and support each other and offer prayers and benedictions for each other. The collegiality and trust that have developed give the group sustaining power.
Tom Schaefer observes, “Learning I could ask for help was a huge leap for me.”
A big part of my growth has been learning I don’t have to have all the answers and can’t figure it all out by myself. I found out everybody needs help at various times. Learning to be vulnerable in this group has enabled me to be vulnerable elsewhere.
Experiencing Life’s Challenges
Longevity also has its rewards. Together we have shared our life stories, both when we met and as we experience life’s challenges. Collectively, our lives are enriched by sharing the full range of life’s joys and sorrows. From the combined experiences of people who have been through all these things has developed a collective wisdom in our group. This results from trusting relationships and the acceptance of each person for who he is.
Chuck Denny described the group’s importance to his coping with his wife, Carol’s, descent into the darkness of Alzheimer’s disease. “The group gave me incredible support in those years when I was caring for Carol at home.”
I could acknowledge to the group just how difficult and tiring this was and what it was like to feel socially isolated. Being together each week enabled me to banter with humor with a group of trusted friends. It provided a social contribution that filled a void in my life because I couldn’t go out. Wednesday mornings are a sacred time, not in a spiritual sense but in finding nourishment, support, acceptance, and an hour of fun.
Tom Schaefer described how the group helped him face a difficult ethical challenge. “As chief financial officer for a manufacturing business, I discovered we were repackaging returned goods and selling them as new.”
I told the group I felt this was an ethical crossroads for me, and they affirmed my concerns. As a result, I told the owner I couldn’t live with this practice. He agreed, and we ended up stopping the repackaging.
Reflections on the Group
We frequently ask ourselves, Is there something unique about the eight of us that makes this group work so well and stay together for so many years? We don’t think we are different than any eight people who genuinely want to explore together the important questions of their lives. What is crucial is the willingness of each of us to share openly, join in the give-and-take of a peer group, and listen in a nonjudgmental way to the challenges others face.
THE EMERGENCE OF SMALL GROUPS
Small groups are certainly not a new phenomenon. We learned through our field research that participation in small groups is gaining strength. These groups arise both formally and informally and have many different purposes. Most people have participated in one kind of group or another.
In doing the research for this book (see Resource 12), we examined many of these groups to understand how they operate and what makes them successful. Examples of the types of groups we explored include:
• Book and study groups
• Prayer groups, Bible study, and other religious groups
• Alcoholics Anonymous groups
• Twelve-step groups that focus on other addictions
• Cooking groups, bridge groups, and wine tasting groups
• Therapy groups, grief groups, and other support groups
• The Forum of the Young Presidents’ Organization
• Small groups within companies
• Travel groups
• Biking, walking, running, and golf groups
These groups are affinity groups whose members come together around a common set of interests or a common concern such as chemical dependency, life-threatening illness, or loss of loved ones. Those interests and concerns provide the focal point for the group’s programs or meetings. Typically, the members take turns leading their groups, whether by proposing menus for a cooking group, studying biblical passages for a Bible study group, or planning routes for a biking trip.
One way of categorizing small groups is by their degree of openness and intimacy. At the base of the pyramid are travel, running, cooking, or bridge groups, and so forth (see Exhibit 1). People in these groups come together for an activity rather than for personal sharing. To the extent that there are personal discussions, it is independent of or incidental to the group’s activities. At the next level are book groups, study groups, and company groups that have intellectual discussions that occasionally delve into personal matters, depending on the topic of the group.
On the third level are Bible study groups, prayer groups, grief groups, therapy groups, Alcoholics Anonymous, and twelve-step groups that are affiliated around a particular purpose and share deeply about that area, including discussions of personal feelings, convictions, and beliefs. Many prayer groups and Bible study groups offer their members opportunities for examination of their religious beliefs and provide strong bonding around shared values.
True North Groups, as described in this book, provide a forum for deep, intimate discussions of all aspects of one’s life, not only matters of belief and faith. These may include personal issues, such as family problems, leadership and career concerns, or healthy living, as well as convictions about a wide spectrum of subjects. They are fairly unique in providing a safe place for confidential discussions of highly personal subjects across the full range of life’s issues, but without any particular affinity.
THE CELLULAR CHURCH
Before exploring True North Groups, it may be useful to look more closely at one kind of upper-tier organization that is growing rapidly — megachurches like Rick Warren’s Saddleback Church, the largest in the United States. In 2005 Malcolm Gladwell, author of The Tipping Point, wrote a widely read article for The New Yorker called “The Cellular Church.” In the article, he compared small groups in megachurches like Saddleback to cells in a larger organism. Gladwell describes how Warren created “a church out of a network of lots of little church cells — exclusive, tightly knit groups of six or seven who meet in one another’s homes during the week to worship and pray.” He writes,
The small group as an instrument of community is initially how Communism spread, and in the postwar years Alcoholics Anonymous and its twelve-step progeny perfected the small-group technique. The small group did not have a designated leader who stood at the front of the room. Members sat in a circle. The focus was on discussion and interaction — not one person teaching and the others listening — and the remarkable thing about these groups was their power. An alcoholic could lose his job and his family, he could be hospitalized, he could be warned by half a dozen doctors — and go on drinking. But put him in a room of his peers once a week — make him share the burdens of others and have his burdens shared by others — and he could do something that once seemed impossible.5
Gladwell explains that megachurches adopted the cellular model because they found that “the small group was an extraordinary vehicle of commitment.” He writes,
It was personal and flexible. It cost nothing. It was convenient, and every worshipper was able to find a small group that precisely matched his or her interests. Today, at least forty million Americans are in a religiously based small group, and the growing ranks of small-group membership have caused a profound shift in the nature of the American religious experience.
Intrigued by the rapid expansion of the membership of these churches, Bill visited Willow Creek in a Chicago suburb in 2008 to meet with Pastor Bill Hybels. Mystified about how people could feel at home with 22,000 people attending weekly worship services, Bill was told, “We are a community of small groups who meet weekly to discuss the Bible and its impact on our lives, and then we all worship together on weekends.”6
True North Groups are not built around affinity models that provide the glue that brings them together and gives their members opportunities for sharing common interests. Our research confirmed that no prior bond is required for a True North Group; in fact, a diverse set of strangers is just as effective as preexisting affinity among members. They often have no particular connection except the longing for affiliation, openness, and commitment to personal growth and leadership development.
In offering opportunities for deep discussions about challenges people face, True North Groups provide a safe place where members can discuss personal issues they do not feel they can raise elsewhere — often not even with their closest family members — and can explore questions about the meaning and purpose of life.
For example, one group member told us he had shared with his colleagues his agony about whether to separate from his wife. He said the group helped him recognize his dissatisfaction resulted more from his issues than his wife’s. After months of discussions with his group and assistance from a professional counselor, he and his wife are back together and seem satisfied with their relationship.
After working closely with dozens of groups, participating in several groups ourselves, and researching the small group phenomenon, we conclude that True North Groups are one of the best opportunities individuals have to grow as human beings and leaders and to develop their full potential.
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