In Dialogue: Even a Tambourine

In Dialogue: Even a Tambourine

A conversation with Team Generosity founders, Jeff Walker and Jennifer McCrea.


Jeff:  As we’ve discussed, it’s important to try to separate your work in the nonprofit space from the demands of ego, since ego so often gets in the way of true connection as well as effective action.  But when you’re working with human beings, it’s not always easy to separate out what is ego-driven from what is not.

Here’s an example.  Last week, I was in a meeting about a health care project for Africa that a number of us have been working on, each focusing on a specific initiative that contributes to the overall program.  Since our last meeting, an exciting, unexpected opportunity had arisen to move into a particular country in Africa in a major way, provided we could quickly raise a billion and a half dollars to make it feasible.  It was an opening that we hadn’t anticipated.  So in this meeting, our chairman announced, “We’re going to lay everything else aside, and we’re going to focus on getting that billion and a half raised.”

Well, that sounded good to most of us.  But then one member of the team—I’ll call him Tom—spoke up and said, “I’m not prepared to donate any more money at this point.  What’s more, I’m totally immersed in the initiative you asked me to tackle, and we’re on the verge of some big breakthroughs.  I don’t want to set that aside to spend the next couple of months helping you raise more money. Don’t screw me up.  I want to just keep going forward.”

So who is right in this case?  Should Tom have said, “Okay, I will  drop back, look at the bigger picture, and reorient my priorities to fit the goals of the team,” or was he right to say, “I need to I stay focused on what I’m doing and not let these other guys distract me from my mission”?  Is Tom being disciplined and goal-oriented—or is he letting ego dictate his reactions?

I don’t think there’s a single right answer.  Honestly, I think Tom was right, and I think we were right.  And the question is, How do we keep playing with each other without getting mad or frustrated?  We’re all working through that question now.

Jennifer:  That’s the key—recognizing the problem, growing from it, and not jumping to say, “I’ve got the answer.”

Karl:  Those can be complicated and painful questions.  Keeping connections healthy in times of discord can be very challenging.  And doesn’t there sometimes come a time when it makes sense for someone to drop out of the band and for someone new to come on board?

Jeff:  That’s almost too easy to do.  Too many people are prone to say, “My friend is becoming a pain in the ass, I’ll stop talking to him,” and then withdraw from the relationship.  I think it’s almost always better to try to repair the breach, or at least have an open discussion where people are really listening to one another’s perspectives.  Don’t lose a band member who may still have a lot to contribute just because both sides are feeling uncomfortable about a disagreement.

Jennifer:  It’s important to remember that, with any band, there are going to be times of growth and times of conflict.  And sometimes those things happen simultaneously.  It’s too easy to break up and try to launch a solo act rather than work your way through the process together.

Karl:  And we all know that after the Beatles broke up, none of the four solo acts that emerged was ever quite as dynamic and exciting as the original Fab Four!

Jeff:  That’s all true.  But on the other hand, there are lots of boards that put up with a member who is obstructionist, negative, and ego-driven, rather than addressing the problem and, if necessary, counseling them out of the band.

Karl:  It takes maturity and managed ego to draw the distinction between a band member who is blocking our growth and one who is raising tough, painful issues that make us uncomfortable but also represent an important contribution.

Jeff:  Absolutely.  In every healthy board, you have one or two “noodges,” people who are raising the hard issues that need to be addressed.  If you had an entire board like that, it would be horrible, but a couple of people who are always pushing the group and challenging assumptions can play a valuable role.  You need them as part of the mix.

It’s just a band.  You don’t need all bass players—you need a guitarist and a keyboard player and even somebody who only knows how to bang the tambourine—even though a whole band of tambourine players would just be a roomful of noise.