A few days ago, I watched a fascinating movie from 2008 — “The Wave” — available widely on DVD, Netflix, etc.  Although the film takes place in Germany (with an all-German cast), it’s actually a dramatization of the true story of an unusual teaching experiment conducted by Ron Jones at his Palo Alto, CA high school in 1969.    As the “The Wave” begins, young teacher Rainer Wenger finds himself compelled to teach a one-week course on the topic of “autocracy” — not his favorite subject.  After his first class — taught in the traditional, lecture manner — fails to inspire much interest from his students, Rainer decides to try an experiment.  During his next session, he suggests people see what living in an autocracy might actually feel like.  For the rest of the week, they will address him as Herr Wenger.  They will stand up when speaking (standing apparently helps blood circulation).  They will wear a uniform to class — a simple white shirt and blue jeans.   And they will come up with a logo, a salute, and a name for their “movement”.   What follows is equal parts fascinating and horrifying.   “The Wave”, as their class is called, takes on a life of its own.  A student begins to shadow “Herr Wenger”, acting as his body guard.   Events are scheduled — for Wave-members only.  Non-Wave members are even beat up.   I won’t spoil things by telling you how it ends up, but you get the idea.    Even in today’s modern Germany — so passionately committed to avoiding another Third Reich — fascism remains an ever-present, enticing, sociological possibility.   And this was just a movie!   The real thing actually happened, right here in the democratic USA — during the rebellious 1960s, no less!

As it turns out, I was lucky enough to attend a screening of The Wave” at a theater in Northern California with Ron Jones in attendance to answer questions.  Jones confirmed that the events in the film were essentially accurate (except for the very end).  His students did, indeed, become this powerful, unified, aggressively-superior clique, all within the course of 5 days.

For the students in the Wave, there were clearly some benefits derived:

  • Their intelligence was piqued and their interest ignited.
  • They felt neat, organized and disciplined.
  • They felt a sense of community (something many were not experiencing in their home lives).
  • They felt the power of numbers.
  • They were given a purpose.
  • They felt individually empowered.

Energizing stuff.   And of course, dangerous as well, in the wrong hands.  The cost of this experiment was the students surrendering their freedom of thought…their ability to challenge authority.  By reaping the benefits of the Wave, the students traded in their basic, human rights: as people, as individuals.  And as the violence escalated, no one was willing to “go against the flow” as things got further and further out of hand.

As a team building leader and coach, viewing “The Wave” got me thinking about the groups I work with.  So often, I observe managers urging their teams to become unified via hatred of another group, company or division.  To aid in this effort, they create a team name, a team logo, and a team purpose.  And this method is highly effective in the short term:  as long as they don’t cross the line into aggressive behavior (which I HAVE seen happen!)

So what can we do build our teams without creating mini-fascist states?

I believe the key is to employ participatory decision making, whether that takes the shape of majority vote, consensus, or something else you can come up with.    There are no sheep in a high-performance team.  All participants have to challenge authority: assertively but constructively, within respectful, agreed-upon channels and procedures.

And we can’t unify via hate.   Organizations, like societies, are made up of a variety of different groups and teams.  Although acting independently to achieve their own results, teams are also part of something bigger.   During times of crisis, they may even need to coordinate with other teams and groups, for the common good.  Where will they be if they detest their counterparts on other groups? Look at the current gridlock in the US Senate!

The team leaders’ challenge, then, is to bring his/her team together using a different inspiration, one that unifies via camaraderie and positivity vs. dislike of others.

I advise you all to give “The Wave” a viewing.  You may just reconsider your own, current “wave” of team leadership.