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Posted on Sep 1, 2015

Group Norms

Group Norms

a Scene, a Sermon and a Seminar

by Ed Noot, SCSBC Executive Director ◊

In addition to a novel or two, my summer reading list included Bruce Cockburn’s memoir, Rumours of Glory,¹ and All In by Adtrian Gostick and Chester Elton.² Cockburn’s memoir was on my must-read list as I have been a fan of his for most of my life. I’m captivated by his life story and his deep understanding of faith. All In was recommended to me by other leaders I know.

All In is a book worthy of consideration, and I planned to have it form the basis for this article. It highlights the need for leaders to create a culture of belief in their organizations. While focused on the world of business, much of what the authors say can be applied to the world of non-profit organizations, including Christian schools. Gostick and Elton begin by arguing that positive corporate culture needs to be founded on developing employees who are engaged, enabled and energized. These elements are neatly summarized as a chart based on work by Towers Watson.³ E-chart Engaged, Enabled, Energized

The balance of the book reads like a how-to manual with useful suggestions for achieving the desired culture where your employees are all in. I recommend this book to both educational leaders and board leaders as a worthwhile read.

My intentions for this article transformed over the summer as a result of my interactions with a scene, a sermon and a seminar. I came to realize that, while we need strategies to improve organizational health, these strategies will become irrelevant if we do not embody leadership from a place of deep integrity. A leader’s way of being needs to be defined, articulated and consistent. In essence, how we are allows what we do to take on meaning, relevance and significance. Without a healthy way of being, all the new ideas and strategies in the world won’t help our Christian schools.

The scene that caught my attention is from the movie, What We Did on Our Holidays, a charming British comedy that unveils deep truth. The movie storyline follows a family that is coming apart at the seams – the parents constantly fight and have lawyered up for the pending divorce. The young children are hurt, confused and trying to make sense of the adult world. The parents agree to put differences aside to make a trip to Scotland for Grandpa’s 75th birthday. While the frantic birthday preparations are underway and multi-layered tension is palpable, the grandfather finds a much needed escape from the cacophony and takes his three grandchildren to the beach. They frolic, explore and delight in each other. He listens to them and patiently tries to answer their questions, admitting when he doesn’t know. The simple authenticity of their interaction stands in sharp contrast the frivolous, frenetic and self-indulgent work being done to prepare for the party. This scene reminded me that how we are with others, our way of being, is critical and that well intentioned plans, strategies and dreams can be easily undermined by self-indulgence, insecurity, passive aggression and counterfeit motivation – pitfalls that even schools bearing the name of Christ are not immune to.

The sermon that stands out was part of a series examining the lives of people who have been historically identified as pillars of the faith. It was focused on the closing verses of Mark 8, where Jesus states, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it” Mark 8, 34b, 35 NIV. To illustrate this passage, the pastor shared some of the life story of Henri Noewen. Noewen studied psychology and theology and spent most of his career as a Catholic priest and academician. He reached the pinnacle of this career teaching for two decades some of the most prestigious academic institutions in the USA, including the University of Notre Dame, Yale Divinity School and Harvard Divinity School. Nouwen left this career to work with people with intellectual challenges at the L’Arche Daybreak community in Richmond Hill, Ontario. Noewen had his struggles in life, but ultimately decided that he needed to live, serve and love “the least of these” in a very direct and personal way. How he was became more important to him than a prestigious career.

The seminar was the Educators Leadership Development Institute, co-sponsored by Christian Schools International and Christian Schools Canada. The session brought together eighteen aspiring leaders for a week of intensive interactions on leadership. As a first-time facilitator, this was also a week of deep learning for me. What struck me was the emergence of a common thread underpinning the various presentations. Each facilitator emphasized the need for leaders to walk with deep authenticity and integrity. A leader’s way of being was consistently highlighted as a priority. We spoke at length about the tasks of leadership and various strategies that may assist in completing these tasks, but time and again we circled back to the need for leaders to operate out of a place of deep integrity, trust and faith.

One outcome of this focus was to devote time to articulating our group norms or ways of being with one another at ELDI. Steven Levy characterizes norms as the “oil for the car engine parts moving intensely together.”4 The work of school boards, admin teams and school faculty can involve intense activity. Group norms lubricate our engagement, reducing friction to facilitate smoother operation.

Every school faculty, school board and admin team has its own set of customs, habits and expectations of how their meetings will be conducted. Often these ways of operating are unspoken and therefore unexamined, and may potentially be counter-productive to the work of the group. Subgroups within the larger group may actually be operating under disparate sets of norms. To develop a well-functioning team, it is important to be intentional about establishing norms for how the group as a whole will operate both procedurally and interpersonally. The norms a group identifies should be an expression of what that group values in a particular setting, they should be communally articulated, reviewed and implemented.

ELDI generated group norms and had them posted throughout the week of meetings. When a group norm was violated other group members gently reminded us of our norms. Members were held mutually accountable. SCSBC has been advocating for the development of group norms for some time (Educating Towards Wisdom: Community, 3-13), but a scene, a sermon and a seminar reminded me of their importance. I would encourage schools to take the time to define your way of being by developing group norms for board, admin and staff meetings. The intense work done in these meetings will be more effective and honouring if it is lubricated by mutually agreed-upon norms.

Ed Noot ( is the SCSBC Executive Director


  1. Bruce Cockburn and Greg King. Rumours of Glory. HarperCollins Publishers Ltd., 2014.
  2. Adrian Gostick and Chester Elton. All In: How the Best Managers Create a Culture of Belief and Drive Big Results. Free Press, 2012.
  3. Ibid, p. 61.
  4. Steven Levy, ASCD Conference workshop, 2011.

“If you continue to remain silent during incidents of brokenness, you are saying that this is how we do the business of living together here.”  ~ Dr. Lee Hollar, statement made when teaching a leadership course at Trinity Western University, Langley, BC.

I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received. Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love.  Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. ~ Ephesians 4:1-3

Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ. From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work. ~ Ephesians 4: 15, 16

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