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Esprit de corps: How’s your activist group?


Almost 40 years ago I attended a workshop with the educator George Leonard. I was too young to fully benefit from his wisdom, but one part of the event stuck with me.

Leonard split the 100 attendees into two teams and conducted what might be called a “war game.” It was an intense experience, e.g., those of us who “died” in battle were carted off to a graveyard, where we contemplated the afterlife until the end of the game. However, the thing I remember most vividly was a comment Leonard made afterwards. He had played this game many times yet could unerringly predict which team would win.

How? By observing which team had stronger esprit de corps. That initially struck me as unconvincing because we had only a few minutes to interact before the game began. But once I reflected on the experience, I had to admit that our team did quickly develop something of a collective personality, even if it was not fully formed.

Ever since that workshop I’ve sized up the esprit de corps of any group that I’ve considered joining. That has included volunteer activities such as nonprofit boards. I can’t state with Leonard’s definitiveness that the success or failure of any of these groups depended entirely on their vibes, but it’s been as good of a yardstick as any.

What does esprit de corps mean? Merriam-Webster’s describes it as “the common spirit existing in the members of a group and inspiring enthusiasm, devotion, and strong regard for the honor of the group.” offers another take: “When a group — whether it’s a team, club, class, or Scout troop — gives its members a sense of cohesion and support, it has esprit de corps.”

Those definitions are fairly vague. Only through trial and error have I gained a greater sense of how to discern between weaker and stronger esprit de corps.

For example, early on I equated it with a high level of interpersonal politeness. Alas, what I learned — particularly here in the Pacific Northwest — is that niceness does not result in a high-trust group when passive-aggressive behavior predominates. The opposite occurs, with potentially devastating results.

I also confused group cohesion with group think. One of the easiest ways for a green candidate or ballot measure to lose an election is to create a bubble around their campaign that rejects information or ideas which are considered bad news.

A third misunderstanding I had about esprit de corps was that it could survive in a group which suffered from psychodramas. Even when participants strongly believe in a cause, their ability to work together can be undercut — or even destroyed — when a leader has untreated control issues.

Strong esprit de corps isn’t always easy to find . . . and can dissipate all too quickly. Thus, I have greatly enjoyed being part of activist groups which were cooking with gas.

What’s been your experience working with green groups, either here in Olympia or elsewhere? Are you currently involved with any organizations or initiatives that possess unusually strong esprit de corps? If so, what’s that like? How does the group maintain altitude?


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