The Synergy of Courage

Back sometime in the 80s or 90s, I began to notice a lot of people using the word “synergy.” Although the word comes to us from ancient Greek, it seemed to get discovered all over again in the latter part of the 20th century.  It originally meant “working together,” but the modern accepted meaning is steeped in the idea that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.  In other words, what you and I accomplish together is bigger than simply combining what you and I can accomplish individually. 

There’s another word I want to throw into the mix here: groupthink. This is a term coined in 1952 by William H. White, Jr.  Groupthink is a psychological phenomenon in which a group’s desire for harmony results in dysfunction and questionable choices. It requires members of the group to avoid raising questions or thinking critically about the group’s function. Groupthink is often the byproduct of an emphasis on cohesiveness over innovation. One of the results of groupthink is a delusion that the group is correct; size and conformity create the mirage of rightness. 

Groupthink may also be related to something known as the bystander effect.  People who witness an emergency are far less likely to act if they are in a group. There was a series of classic studies conducted about the bystander effect in the late 1960s, and in one it was discovered that 70% would help a woman in distress if they were the only witness, but when other people were present, that number dropped to 40%. 

During World War II, after the Nazi occupation of France, there was a well-known resistance movement that arose. It started off slowly with isolated and unorganized efforts to stymie the Germans and the collaborationist French Vichy government.  In time, it grew into an effort that was considered a significant help to the Allies and ultimately was depicted admirably in movies, books, and other forms of popular culture. But, here is the reason I’m telling you this — at its height, the French Resistance consisted of maybe 5% of the population. Actually, 5% is a ridiculously generous estimate. It was probably closer to 2-3%. 

The Nazis took over France, and for the most part, the nation stepped into groupthink that dared not contradict Nazi ideology.  And, to be fair, the Nazis had a tendency to kill people, so I’m not sure how harshly we can judge 95% of 1940s France. 

I wonder who the first one was? The first French citizen who said to themselves, “This is not right. I can’t go along with this.” Who was the one who saw the lady in distress and thought to themselves, “Damn the crowd. I have to save the lady.” 

We’ll likely never know the one or the many ones in different villages and towns who followed a simultaneous call to resistance. All we know is that once they dared to take a stand against a wrong, others joined them.  

It has been said that one person with courage makes a majority.  Every time I hear that saying, I think about the Mahatma Gandhi, and I think about Harriet Tubman, and I think about Galileo, and Nelson Mandela, and Ida B. Wells, and Martin Luther King, Jr.  People who dared to stand against groupthink, even if they had to stand alone at times, and how their courage attracted others, and how a synergy developed that, if not exactly a majority, became stronger than the majority, for the synergy of courage in just a few is stronger than the facade of power held by a majority of conformists. 

Most of us won’t become a Rosa Parks or Frederick Douglass, but we may face an opportunity at some point in our lives to be the unknown origin of a noble resistance, the first to show the courage that will blossom into a synergy that may well change the world.  

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