Grassroots Leaders Who are Incurably Bad

7719793_xxlThis is the 3rd article in the grassroots leadership series. Sometimes there are leaders who are just real jerks. Maybe they have problems with egotism. Maybe they are unstable and mentally ill. Maybe they are alcoholic. Maybe they have some other problem.

As I discussed in the last blog post, when I teach leadership, Pagans and other grassroots leaders ask me, “How do I deal with a community leader that’s a total asshole,” or, “How do I warn people away from the really bad group leaders?”

The challenge is, if they are verbally abusing you or undermining you, there isn’t really a lot you can do. If you’re a member of that group, you can leave. But, you can’t (in most instances) take another group leader “down.” It’s a frustrating prospect. Let’s go a little deeper into what kinds of leaders out there cause problems so bad that you , as a leader or group member, might consider extreme measures to keep your community protected from the bad behavior of a leader.

Most of the people I’m going to talk about in the rest of the article aren’t predators, they are just jerks. However, let’s address the really bad folks first; pedophiles, rapists, abusers, psychopaths/sociopaths. There’s nothing you can do to help them or fix them. They will keep doing what they are doing until they die or are incarcerated. If someone in your group or another group leader is abusing minors, raping people, or engaging in other harmful, illegal activities, go to the police. Do not try to protect them just because they are Pagan, or an activist, or a member of any other grassroots cause. Don’t worry that them in the papers will give your community a bad name. If you have reasonable evidence, these people need to be prosecuted.

However–and I hate that I have to say this–don’t ever lie and suggest a leader is engaging in illegal activities just to strengthen your position while speaking out against them.

Making the assumption that what this other group leader is doing is not illegal, there aren’t many options. Let’s assume that this leader is engaging in harmful, unethical behaviors, and you are not “above” that person, meaning, you have no control over their actions/ability to lead a group.

Speaking Out Against Someone
What tends to motivate people quickly into the Speaking Out scenario is fear and anger. People feel powerless in response to actions by a group leader who is perceived as powerful–whether a leader of a group they are in, or of another group. They feel powerless, they get afraid, and they get angry. They post on Facebook, email groups, talk about them at Pagan gatherings to others they know. In essence, they try to spread the word–this person’s a jerk.

However, we Westerners have a penchant for the Underdog. Most of the time people who speak out against others are thought of as drama llamas trying to stir the pot, even if the person they are speaking out against is actually harming others. Whether or not they are passing along accurate information, most times this is not an effective strategy for dealing with a harmful group leader, because people won’t listen.

I’m not advocating silence out of fear of judgment. Because, so many Pagans and other grassroots groups have kept quiet about abusive, hurtful leaders, and all that silence does is perpetuate more abuse.

But, if you’re going to speak out, be really, really clear that it’s for the right reasons. And, be willing to stand in the fire. I’m not talking about the “I’ll throw away my own reputation to destroy this person” out of a vengeance mindset. And anyone working withing the Pagan community needs to think about the impact on community, and community safety, not their own vengeance.

And once again, you can’t “make” another leader stop leading a group. In almost all cases of Pagan community disagreements, it’s Person A said ____, Person B said____, with no way to prove it either way.

One exception that can help with the Speak Out method is if there are fifteen Person B’s, and you all speak out, that may have more of an impact. This strategy is only useful or necessary if the leader in question is a really bad egg. Like, really actively harming the local community, acting in an abusive way. Perhaps it’s not illegal; in most cases, sleeping with your adult-age group members isn’t illegal. Nor is manipulating people to get what you want and then throwing a tantrum and turning everyone in the group against them. However, if a leader is really damaging the reputation of Pagans locally, or is a danger to younger, newbie group members, it might be worth considering trying to take some larger and more visible community action.

You still can’t actually stop Person A, under most circumstances. In the rare instance where it’s a tradition with religious superiors, you can go to them, but I haven’t experienced that doing much good. Most traditions take a pretty hands off approach to local clergy.

Another exception is if you yourself have a lot of visibility, local clout, and fairly unimpeachable ethics.

An example: I spoke out publicly about my ex partner. I suffered some backlash initially, and it took a while for the truth to come out. What tipped the balance for people who initially supported him was when other women he had hurt started coming out about it, and he started doing crazy, rude stuff at various events. He really ruined his own reputation, I just sped up the process.

The truth will point to itself, but that does take time.

Vengeance can’t be your motivator. Your motivation has to be about the health of your community and your group. It’s a subtle difference, particularly if the group leader who is acting in a harmful way is backstabbing you personally and working to undermine your group.

Incurably Bad Leaders
Let’s take a step back and look at what this means. We’re talking about leaders that aren’t necessarily a predator, or, they’re on the legal edge of predator. What I mean is, they aren’t targeting minors, but they are targeting the vulnerable newbies in their group or at a festival to pressure them for sex. We’re also not talking about leaders who just have strong personalities and are stubborn, but who are basically good people.

I have another blog post coming up on trying to discern some of these differences, particularly through a conflict resolution process.

We’re talking about the leaders who are so stubborn and set in their ways they are completely unwilling to listen to you. People who refuse to communicate. Who badmouth you  to undermine your group because they are threatened by you. People who are unstable, who throw major temper tantrums and go absolutely postal when you offer them negative feedback. People who verbally abuse others, people who lie and manipulate others. One example that I’ve heard of in a few places is a local leader who goes to public events run by other groups, and then when they begin a ritual or workshop, will actually step in, interrupt the facilitators, and berate them for “doing it wrong” or try to take over.

We’re talking about someone who completely derails meetings by making it all about them. People who yell at their team members in front of other people, consistently. We’re talking about people who consistently disrupt any unity effort by trying to take it over or trying to destroy it–or both. Someone who joins your email list and posts rude things or hijacks threads to talk about their own events. People who are just consistently rude.

There’s actually a big difference between someone who is just a stubborn, empowered visionary, and someone who is an incurable jerk. There’s a spectrum there–any of us who step into leadership may have a little stubborn streak, but that’s different from someone who just is rude, year after year. There’s a Pagan leader I know who seems to think every local Pagan leader needs to swear fealty to him. He actually has a ceremony where he gets people to do this, he tells them they are being “made” a community elder. And during the ritual, they have to kiss his ring. I am not kidding. I don’t care if that person has served the local community for 30 years; doing that, and working to sabotage groups that don’t toe the line, is inexcusable.

If I, personally, find myself in a position of actively speaking out against another group leader, you can be sure that I have heard rather a lot of bad things about that person, and, I have fact checked and screened my sources. 

What Do You Do?
Most leaders who are being jerks I can pretty safely ignore. Maybe they badmouth me, maybe they are using and emotionally abusing a few newbies, and there’s not much I can do about that. If I do decide to speak out about a group leader, there’s a spectrum of response. If it’s someone who is on that verge of being dangerous, I’m happy to be public about speaking out–and, I pick my battles. More often there are just leaders that I don’t recommend for various reasons. So when seekers come to me looking for group recommendations, I tell them who I recommend, and who I don’t, and why. I give them the informed choice to do what they want.

Remember–speaking out will not force these leaders stop. You can’t fix them, can’t change them. If they are just being jerks, but not being sexually abusive jerks, most of the time it’s usually best to just ignore them as best you can.

Walk Away
This is sometimes referred to as the “high road,” although that’s not always an accurate statement–sometimes people say they are taking the “high road” when what they are really afraid to do is take a stand. Not that I blame them most of the time. Often, all ou can do is to walk away from a group, and to privately/one-on-one tell people about your experiences there.

Or, if you’re a group leader or part of other groups, you can very simply choose not to work with that group leader. Sometimes shunning is the only thing that you have. There are groups in the Chicagoland area I’d love to shut down, specifically the unethical sex temple there. I keep tabs on what local groups are doing. For that matter, I keep tabs on what dozens of groups are doing around the midwest and other places I’ve taught, since people ask me for consultations on problems in their area, and occasionally I’m asked to mediate a dispute so I like to know what’s going on.

Basically, I keep tabs, and I choose whom I recommend and whom I do not when seekers come to me looking for a group.

Honest Mistakes
There’s all sorts of situations which lead to bad leadership dynamics. One is just honest failure; most volunteer leaders weren’t trained in leadership. Most leaders I talk to don’t even want to be leaders. They screw up because they volunteered to host classes out of their homes and suddenly became the group leader.

And sometimes, it’s not that a leader is a bad person. Sometimes our personalities are just incompatible. The sad thing is, even when I’ve gotten a group of other leaders into a room together to plan an event together, it doesn’t usually work well. Maybe we’re all just used to steering our own plow. Even when we’re all reasonable people, we all have different styles.

I’ve seen entirely new conflicts arise out of “roundtable” and “unity” efforts like that.There’s other group leaders where I respect their work, but our work style/approach is just really different. And I recognize, if we tried collaborating, that would probably be a disaster. Not that either of us is bad, we’re just not going to be good collaborating.

Mental Illness
Some leaders have real mental illnesses. I can’t tell you the number of group leaders I encounter that have symptoms of Borderline Personality Disorder, Narcissistic PD, or any of the antisocial PD’s, or Bipolar. I myself have struggled with depression much of my life. If you meet me while I’m teaching a workshop or leading a ritual, you probably won’t know that I struggle with social anxiety.

Many mental illnesses can be managed through therapy and in some case medication, like Bipolar. Other things are more challenging, like the antisocial PD’s.

It really, really will serve you to understand the red flags for these (and other) mental illnesses. Sometimes, you can work with someone if you know what they have going on. There’s a massive difference between someone with Aspergers who is perceived as rude and speaking out of turn, and someone who has Narcissistic Personality Disorder who is ultimately going to try and overthrow your group leader in order to turn everyone around them into a “mirror” and make it all about them. Antagonists in the Church is a good book to start with for understanding some of the more toxic personalities; it’s written for Christian church leaders, but you can translate it to any group.

Holes in the Ego and Egotism
Some leaders just have huge gaping wounds from their past. Maybe they don’t have a personality disorder, perhaps they are just a jerk.

I’ve worked through a lot of old wounds in my own life. I used to be massively defensive, control freak, can’t ever be wrong know-it-all. Because, somehow in my teenage mind, being “right” meant I was giving the finger to all the kids in high school who made fun of me. Thing is, being right doesn’t really lead to anyone wanting to spend time with you…and I had to learn that the hard way.

Those old holes in our egos, those old wounds, become our shadows. Many leaders have these shadows. These are the shadows that can often be dealt with if we’re willing to look into the mirror, and maybe get some therapy.

Unfortunately, it seems that a significant percentage of grassroots leaders who are stubborn enough to keep a group going for more than 5 years also seem to have problems with egotism. I think this is both a testament to how difficult it is to build a strong group (it takes that kind of fierce stubbornness to put up with all the drama llamas and volunteers dropping the ball) but it’s also a testament to how we need to steward better and healthier leaders, not just leave leadership to the only person willing to do it. Who also just happens to be the person who’s crazy motivated…because, they are actually a little crazy.

So I just want to make sure that I offer that caveat–leadership training can help most folks. But, for the folks with a major personality disorder–and they can sometimes be very charismatic–it’s not going to help them.
  1. First, they are unlikely to actually attend a leadership training. They will be certain that They Know Best. Or that People are Just Out to Get Them.
  2. Even if they attend, they won’t actually internalize the ethics.
  3. They might give platitudes out of one side of their mouth, and then a week later go right back to the old behavior

Where does this leave us?
Well–about the same place as the last article. You can’t fix crappy leaders. But what I have found is that understanding why a leader is bad, and understanding where they are on the spectrum of bad, is invaluable in helping me to determine a rational response.

I’ll continue the series with another article in a couple of days, but I also wanted to forward along this link to an article Ivo Dominguez wrote that provides a few tips and techniques that you might find of use.

3 thoughts on “Grassroots Leaders Who are Incurably Bad

  1. Pingback: PMP: Shauna Aura Knight & Leadership | Pagan-Musings Podcast Channel

  2. Great observations, and a great topic! Honestly, the Christian churches who are organized and supervised can’t do any better at stopping their bad leadership. The Peter Principle at work!

  3. Pingback: PMP: Hypersensitivity & the Pagan | Pagan-Musings Podcast Channel

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