Leadership for Small Groups and Subcultures

7381485_xxlI think about leadership rather a lot, and I have people ask me for leadership advice with some frequency. I’ve been working up a series of posts exploring the deep challenges with leadership in the Pagan community, because I unfortunately get to see a lot of its seedy underbelly.

Though, these aren’t just issues of Pagan communities…those are just the communities I’m most deeply involved in. Other subcultural groups have these same problems through what I’d call “It’s a Small World” syndrome. Any time there are humans, these problems crop up; corporations, politicians, church leaders…any group could have these challenges. They are just exacerbated in grassroots groups without a big overarching structure.

What I see over and over is the problem of people in leadership positions who are absolutely unsuitable to be leaders. What we have are people who are unstable and mentally ill, or egotistical, or jerks…or even people who genuinely mean well but have no training in group leadership.

The question I get asked all the time when I teach leadership is, “So we’re trying to build local community, and we invited local leaders to work together. Except there’s this one leader….” and they pause, they are trying to be polite. They try to be discrete and not name names. But, I keep my ear to the ground, and eventually, I hear about most of the dirt going on in any local community where I travel and teach. I hear about the Seedy Underbelly.

The Profile: Egotistical Leader
That “one leader” is someone who eventually has thrown a total egotistical tantrum.

The trigger: another group is working in “their” area–their turf–and then that leader either verbally abuses the other group leaders and members, or quietly undermines them, spreads rumors about them, tries to keep them out of larger community activities.

Sometimes this is someone who demands the status of “elder,” or who otherwise would fit that status. What I mean is, I see this behavior a lot not in newer, inexperienced leaders, but with people who have been leaders for more than a decade, and who have a host of titles behind their name.

I hear about this problem so commonly, and people ask me, “What can I do about that leader?” What they want to know is, “How can I fix them?” And most of the time, you can’t. But what do you do instead?

Why Are You A Leader?
What I want to know is, how and why do so many people who are unstable, whether that’s untreated bipolar, narcissistic personality disorder,  alcoholism, abusive behavior, or maybe they are just rampant egomaniacs…how and why do these people end up in leadership?

Subcultures are particularly vulnerable to these types of leaders. We don’t have a system of gatekeepers, there’s no hierarchy saying, “Yes, you can be a leader. No, you aren’t suitable.” And there’s a dearth of people who actually are motivated enough to do anything.

Needing to be Seen and Egotism
In our Western culture, the need to be seen and admired is a cultural “sin,” a shadow. It’s not inherently a bad thing to want to be seen, to be valued. It’s human nature. However, when it overpowers good sense, when we ignore that shadow and disown it, that’s usually when it rises up to bite us.

I’ve done my own dance with “Look at me.” I’m not immune to these leadership sins. The times when I was running the most ambitious events were when I desperately wanted to be “seen,” to be valued. In my case, ruthless personal growth work helped me to understand that I didn’t value myself, I had poor self esteem, however, I had always valued what I could “do.” The events I could run, my artwork, etc.

In my head the math worked out to, “If I run this kickass event everyone will think I’m awesome and that’ll give the finger to all the people who abused me in school.”

Of course that isn’t logical, but, the parts of ourselves working on that level aren’t rational. They are the abused kid of our past that is still in the “car” of our self, our personality. We are all the ages we have ever been. We hold our past and our fears within us. And when we’re on autopilot, sometimes it’s a much younger, much more wounded Self driving the car.

Once I realized that I, myself, inherently have value…once I grew my self confidence, I no longer needed to run big showy events to feel “good” about myself. However, it means that I also lost a lot of the drive and motivation I used to have to run events.

And I begin to wonder about that…if there’s some tie between the wounds of our past, and the very few people who step into leadership and event planning, the very few people that actually have the motivation  to actually make that work happen…perhaps many of us who stepped into leadership only had the motivation to do so because of the wounds of our past? Because of our own poor self esteem? I don’t have answers here, only questions.

But what I’ve seen time and again are the people with the most drive, tend to be the most damaged, the most unstable.

I have seen so many leaders who had the drive and the interest–and yeah, there’s so few of us out there with the drive and interest to actually take the time to do this–but how many of us are actually motivated from a really unhealthy place? I’ve tried to come to running events from a more healthy place, but it’s a far slower process. Probably more sustainable in the long term, but it’s still a road I’m new to.

Common Problems: Instability
There are some common leadership problems that cause a nightmare of group dynamics spaghetti in Pagan communities. So often they seem to center on group members and leaders who are unstable and mentally ill, or just egomaniacs. These people cannot handle criticism, cannot handle people “infringing” on their turf, and they will blow up at other group leaders, they will undermine groups and group leaders, they will throw petulant temper tantrums.

These problems are exacerbated by the other group leaders out there who are just trying to do good work, but they have no leadership training. These group leaders may have more stability and maturity, but they make a lot of key mistakes. Honest mistakes, but these mistakes often escalate the problems and can lead to that healthier leader bailing, or to that group imploding. I mean, who wants to keep running a group when someone else is out there trying to undermine you all the time and shooting arrows into your back with gossip? It’s exhausting.

Pagan leadership plagued with group members, and leaders, who are like cranky teenagers wearing grown-up skin suits. I often wonder why I bother teaching leadership, if there’s any hope.

And again, I feel compelled to be transparent. I’m not always a paragon of stability myself. I struggle with depression, I drop the ball on things I’ve agreed to because I say yes to too much, and I’m not a pillar of financial stability. Granted, that last point is because I have donated too much of my time and money to the Pagan community…but if I were perhaps more stable and responsible I wouldn’t have let things get this bad.

I know a lot of my issues and I work on them, but I share some of the core issues of many of the unstable leaders out there.

Institutions and Paganism
I know a lot of Pagans talk about not wanting leaders, not wanting institutions that will take the “wildness” out of Pagans, however, I think that institutions and organizations are the only way we can build a healthy, useful, sustainable infrastructure.

I’m an ecstatic ritualist and mystic who wants institutions. At heart, I’m an anarchist, at least, an optimist, but I’m also a realist. True anarchy means, if I see a pothole, I fix it. I don’t wait for “them” to fix it, there’s no them. There’s only me being radically self-responsible. That’s optimistic…but, people are people. We aren’t there yet. I can’t even convince Pagans that they should make the choice to not use styrofoam at potlucks because it’s being hypocritical, if you say you’re Earth-centered. But I digress.

With Pagan leadership, I wish that Pagans and Pagan leaders were all ethical, self responsible people. I wish that Pagans were as tolerant as they purport to be. But we aren’t. I hear all the time about the deep, dark, stanky underbelly of the ugly crap Pagan leaders have done, particularly because I teach leadership.

So f we’re going to have institutions, then we need to do them well. If we’re going to have leadership and hierarchies, then we need those leaders to be accountable. And even if that leadership is shared–consensus, rotating leadership, voting in officers…whatever it is, we need our leaders to have actual leadership training. To have some method of doing the intense personal work and facing shadows so that we don’t step on ourselves.

Many of the group blow-ups I hear about are leaders who started with positive intent whose own baggage got in their way and they had a massive egotistical kablooey at someone in their group or another leader.

I’m sick of hearing about group leader after group leader who is causing these problems in their own community. Worst case, we’re talking about group leaders seducing minors–which happens. Theft, rape…it happens.

Who Should be a Leader?
I’m not the boss of anyone; we are each our own sovereigns. However, it’s also equally clear to me that there are some people who should simply not ever be in a position of leadership because they are unstable and have untreated mental illness, rampant egotism, or other various problems. I think the key here is unstable–many people with various kinds of mental illness have a regimen of meds and or therapy that they manage very well.

But the folks that don’t, the folks who are unstable, the folks who are completely not self aware, the folks who are completely egotistical…How do these folks end up in leadership?

Often the short answer is, there’s nobody else. There’s nobody else motivated to step in to do the work. It’s often the less stable of us that seem to get the leadership bug. Or maybe it’s that you have to be slightly insane to want to be a leader for a Pagan group, or run events that run the risk of not breaking even.

So many people in my leadership classes admit that they never wanted to be leaders. Here’s my admission–I didn’t want to be one either. I wanted my projects to happen, my dreams to happen. So, I had to become visible, become a leader, to make that happen.

As I’ve pointed out, I’m not always a paragon of sanity and stability myself. And, at times, I’ve stepped back from my role as an event organizer and group leader. I’ve worked on my own issues in order to become a healthier, more stable leader. But so many people I engage with seem to either have no clue how destructive they are in their own community, or, they just don’t care that they are jerks.

What Will Help the Situation?
If we’re going to have leaders, these leaders need training, and they need to be held accountable. But, that takes us back to the larger Pagan Community (or any other subculture). There’s no Pope, no ringmaster, no “this person’s above you” method of accountability.

I think most people I know were raised to be non-confrontational, to be passive aggressive. And a lot of Pagan leaders have learned to sweep the bad stuff under the rug because they are afraid of starting a witch war (which is no such thing, it’s just a personality conflict).

But what do you do?

Leaders who aren’t stable, who are consistently abusive, aren’t going to change. And you can’t make them stop. You can’t “fire” them. You can’t excommunicate them. What I often recommend–and this feels like an impotent, feeble recommendation–is to keep doing the work they are doing, ignore and shun the leader who is being difficult, and hope that you can reduce their relevance and keep up your own good work.

That’s not much of a recommendation.  Ignoring some of them does reduce their relevance to a dull roar…but they are still there. And the regular group leaders out there just trying to do good work get exhausted. Not from any kind of magical psychic attack, but just from dealing with the drama, the gossip, the pot shots, the stress.

Leadership Series
This is actually a series of several blog posts, because it’s a large topic. In a few days I’ll post about some of the problems, and some strategies for dealing with them. I hope you will join me in this mad idealistic crusade on the road to better Pagan leadership.

7 thoughts on “Leadership for Small Groups and Subcultures

  1. This was very helpful and actually gave words to what I was thinking the entire time.

    Thank you so much for your insightful posts. I’m so glad I met you! I hope to see you more often, too!

    I’ll look through your blog for more information on leadership skills and community building.

    I’m still at the bottom of my own leadership training. I’ve mad some progress and then had to step back, redo/learn something and then get back on track.

    I haven’t done individual training with anyone but have been taking seminary courses and reading on the topic as much as possible.

    So, for now, I am only book-smart. I’ve hardly any experience in the field.

    Again, thank you for the insights and for being so helpful! It makes me feel good to know your sincerity and hard work despite having the difficulties that you do.

    It makes me feel like leadership is open to human experience rather than just sitting on a throne and being perfect

  2. This is such a large topic, and affects so many in the Pagan community whether they actively participate in institutions or organisations or not. Good and bad leaders impact generations of Pagans, and can leave a lasting legacy. How do we ensure that legacy is one that should stand the test of time? I am looking forward to following this exploration of leadership.

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