Herding Cats: Why I Dislike This Phrase

imagesI really, really hate this phrase. Every time I tell people I teach Pagan leadership, they think it’s so funny to bring up the old joke. “Pagan leadership is just like herding cats,” they say with a nod or a smirk.

Like I haven’t heard the joke a thousand times before.

And if you’re one of the folks that has done this–don’t worry, I’m not mad at you. I’m mad that our community in general continues to perpetuate this very unhelpful phrase, this unhelpful story.

This is Part 4 of a series on leadership, so you might want to check those for additional context. I completely reject the “myth” that Pagan leadership is like “herding cats.” Yes, sometime it comes to pass that Pagan leadership is frustrating. Why is it like that? Because we keep saying it is. We make that reality happen. You know–words have power. Words have a lot of power. Words shape reality.

I actively encourage people to not use that particular phrase because it just reinforces the story that Pagans are hard to lead. In fact, it’s more accurate to say, people are hard to lead. Pagans are a subculture with unique difficulties and our leaders don’t have appropriate training in leadership, which exacerbates the problems we face. But this phrase does not serve us in moving forward. Words have power–I’ve written a whole blog post about that on Pagan Activist.

I’m about to publish two books that will include all of my current collected articles and blog posts on leadership, personal growth, and ritual facilitation. I posted on my  Facebook that I was looking for some suggestions for the title of the leadership book.

How many people suggested herding cats? Title suggestions below:

  • Leading Pagans: I did those things so you wouldn’t have to
  • Tales from the pagan pulpit
  • A Herd of Cats is Called a Pride: Transforming Criticism into Leadership
  • Herding Kittens without Losing Your Mind
  • Lightning in a bottle: Leading Nature’s children on a common path
  • A Flame in My Heart and a Target on My Back
  • Wearing Midnight: Leadership Roles in Modern Paganism
  • Acorns to Oaks: Planting the Seeds of the Future
  • The Center of the Circle–Phaedra (plus the Target t-shirt)
  • Heavy Sighs and Facepalms
  • Herding Cats: Planting the Seeds of Pagan Leadership

I think that the “herding cats” myth we tell ourselves does us a disservice, just like shrugging and saying, “Oh, that’s Pagan Standard Time.” It excuses rudeness and poor leadership. And yes, we have a lot of rudeness in the Pagan community. There are a lot of inconsiderate people. And there are also a lot of clueless people too who have no idea that they are being disruptive.

Kenny Klein wrote an article admonishing Pagans for what’s often referred to as “Pagan Standard Time,” however, for me, this could just as well refer to the other choice phrases we use to identify ourselves. Like, “Pagans are broke,” or, “Pagan leadership is like herding cats.” Words have power, words shape reality, and these phrases do not tell the story we want for our future. 

“Get over it! You represent the Pagan community! Pull yourself together! I know, it is a hallmark of our culture in general that people are rude, late, and self-centered. But as Pagans, shouldn’t we be above that? As people who, after considerable thought, gave up the status quo to pursue our true selves, shouldn’t we be the shining example, not the common problem? I think we should.” – Kenny Klein *
http://www.witchesandpagans.com/Pagan-Culture-Blogs/pagan-standard-time-1.html

*I added the boldface, it’s not in the original article.

If Not Herding Cats…Then What?
Herding cats roughly implies that Pagans are too individualistic to ever follow someone else, and trying to organize and lead such individualistic people is impossible.

However, that hasn’t been my experience at all. Most Pagans I meet are desperate to find a group that is stable and healthy where they can get basic education. Sure, many Pagans are also argumentative and rude. In fact, many Pagans also lack some basic social skills, and I’ve gone on about why I think that is in the past, but I can dig up a link if folks are interested in more depth on that topic. I think the previous posts in this leadership series probably do a decent job of looking at some of the core problems.

What are the Problems?
There are a number of key problems that contribute to the difficulty that Pagans seem to have in achieving healthy groups and healthy leadership. In the world of design–product design, event design, urban planning, etc. –there’s a saying that the solution is within the problem, and that you can’t really solve the problem until you deeply understand the problem.

Here’s a quick list of some of the problems I’ve witnessed:

  • Poor access to leadership training: Most people who end up as leaders didn’t want the job, and never got any training in communication, group dynamics, or psychology. They make honest mistakes that have big impacts.
  • Leaders who are jerks: As discussed in previous articles, grassroots and ad hoc communities are vulnerable in that anyone can step up to be a leader, there’s no “gatekeeper.” And, many of the folks who do step up to be leaders have issues ranging from untreated mental illness to severe egotism, or they may even be sexual predators. Often it seems that the people who are stubborn enough to tough it out as leaders also are motivated by self-centeredness, ego, or other instabilities.
  • Numbers: It’s a numbers game. If Paganism is less than one half of one percent of the population, that means that Chicago should have thousands of Pagans. However, how many come out to Chicago Pagan Pride? Maybe 500. That’s the most well-attended Pagan event in Chicago. Most of those Pagans won’t come out to anything else the rest of the year. There are only so many Pagans in any given area, spread out across geography, and interested in different things. There are only so many people who are actually interested in leadership, or willing to be a do-er and volunteer.
  • Burnout: The lack of motivated volunteers and leaders tends to burn out the leaders we do have.
  • Sins of the past: Many people who used to be heavily involved in the community got burned out by the conflicts of the past. This disproportionately impacts leaders, such as a leader who stepped into a leadership role even though they didn’t really want to, and then another local leader started backstabbing them and badmouthing them. Many people can only undergo stress like that for so long before they give up and go into hiding.
  • Rejecting: Most Pagans are folks who, for whatever reason, did not find a home in another faith community. In fact, Pagans tend to be members of several overlapping subcultures. Renfaires, SCA, BDSM, Polyamory, Hippies, Scifi/Fantasy geeks, liberal activists…it’s not to say all Pagans are these things. However, if you’re talking numbers, there’s frequently a heavy overlap in many of these subcultures. Generally, many Pagans seem to value being unique individuals, but more than that, many Pagans were rejected by the dominant culture, or, rejected themselves from it. I believe that this leads to one result that becomes the kicker–we have a fairly small base population to begin with. And, what I have witnessed anecdotally is that Paganism has a higher-than-average percentage of people who have mental illness, treated or untreated. Thus, you often have a lot of people with a chip on their shoulder about something, making it more difficult for them to get along with each other.

There’s other challenges, but those are a few of the significant ones.

What you end up with is a ridiculously small base population, spread out over distance. You have people who tend to be apathetic. That’s not a Pagan thing, that’s They want people to do things for them, not to be the ones doing it, or a do-er. Do-ers are rare. Most people are more interested in “being,” or Be-ers as I call them. In fact, the drive to be a leader or event planner is fairly rare, as is the drive to step up and volunteer.

What I see in the Pagan community is a high percentage of leaders who are 1. unskilled and untrained, or 2. their drive comes from them being stubborn egomaniacs or from untreated mental illness.

It’s kind of a recipe for disaster.

What’s the Solution?
I have a hunch–no solid evidence, just things I think about when I’m staring at the ceiling trying to get to sleep at night, pondering the nature of life and Pagan community. I’m an insomniac. I do this with some frequency.

My theory is that some of the sociological root of many religions’ admonishment against contraception and the religious direction to procreate and multiply is to solve some of the above “numbers” problem.

As a minority religion that lives spread apart, there’s only so much you can do both in terms of proximity and money. A hundred Pagans that have to drive 1-2 hours to get to a ritual are going to have a hard time making that commitment. However, a hundred Pagans that all live within blocks of a church/temple/community center make that far more viable.

Plus, more people in closer proximity like that have the potential to raise more funds. Many Unitarian Universalist churches have only 100-200 tithing members at a church and they are able to support a building, minister’s salary, and other administrators’ salaries on that. I’ll be doing a whole article series on Pagans and fundraising as part of the leadership series to follow up on my Pagan Activist post on Pagans and money.

Here are some things that are way more helpful than making the joke about herding cats.

Teach our Emerging Leaders Good Leadership Skills
Give them the tools to do the job well. This means–yes–paying for training. We don’t have all the skills we need within the Pagan community. We’re going to need to pay for training for our leaders if we want to build that capacity within the community.

Focus on Mental Health
Let’s all get healthy.
That means me, and that means you. I can’t even articulate how often my own depression and anxiety issues have made me a poorer leader. What has made me a better leader is working on my issues of self esteem; it turned me from a stubborn egomaniac into a reasonably stubborn visionary who can hear the word “no” without throwing a tantrum.

Focus on Physical Health
What does that have to do with leadership? I’ve written about my own process of getting healthy at some length in past blog posts, but the bottom line is, when I figured out some of my food intolerances and cut those foods out of my diet, my own mental health improved. Pagans tend to lean on the “Screw you I’m fat and I don’t care” side of things. But this isn’t about fat, it’s about health. Physical health leads to mental health. I’m 180 pounds, “fat” by the standards of the dominant culture, but healthier than I’ve ever been in my life because I’m eating foods that aren’t poisoning me.

Personal and Spiritual Growth Work
I can teach you all sorts of amazing communication tools, conflict resolution tools, and I can teach you about group dynamics. None of that is going to fix anything for you if you’re just a total jerk. Once upon a time, I had a boss. He was one of those total asshole bosses, a really toxic guy.

One day, he asked for my help and that of the other designers on my team in preparing some design concepts to the executive vice president of our company. I asked him what he’d like for me to do, and he did a poor job of explaining it, I asked him, “Like this?” and he just grabbed the board out of my hands and muttered, “I’ll do it myself.”

I was fuming. I went back to my desk almost in tears. And then I realized.

I. Totally. Do. That.

That was not a good day for me. I realized what a totally shitty leader I was at times. This was in context of the (geek alert) scifi conventions I used to attend where I led a team of Star Wars nerds in creating Star Wars reproduction scenery. I would do a terrible idea of explaining the concept of what we were doing, and when people failed to do what I had in my head, I’d grab their work out of their hands and just do it myself.

Leadership pro tip: Nothing disheartens a volunteer more than this behavior.

However, we’ve reached a key point here. In recognizing that I did that, I was able to confront my shadow and work to shift the behavior. I’m still not the best volunteer manager, but at least I’m not a jerk about it like I used to be. There are so many things that we each do, as leaders, that we probably aren’t aware of. We’re shooting ourselves in the foot all the time. When we explore our shadows and our issues, we can work to become better leaders and better people.

Looking Forward
Trotting out the “herding cats” joke just makes crappy behavior okay. Let’s instead work to be better, to tell the story of what we could do if we worked together. When we hold a vision of the future, when we speak it, that’s an act of magic. Words are magic. Let’s use words that paint the picture of that stunning, shining dream of what we’d like to see, not the poor behavior of the past.

“Dream no small dreams for they have no power to move the hearts of men.”
–Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

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11 thoughts on “Herding Cats: Why I Dislike This Phrase

  1. I am really enjoying this series. I have to giggle a bit — we’re down to four cats now, but not all that long ago we had eight, plus two that we were caring for that were not our own. Maybe they were especially tolerant cats, but I noticed the same thing happen whenever I was feeding strays in Philly. Herding them? Not so hard, providing you had something they all wanted. It’s a bit unnerving being followed around by that many small predators, herding them was easy. So I’ve never really gotten the “herding cats” phrase.

  2. Good series, Shauna. I cast my vote for the book title: A Herd of Cats is Called a Pride: Transforming Criticism into Leadership. Love that title and think it will grab the reader who is familiar with the phrase. And thank you for joining us on the podcast to talk about this topic. – RevKess

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  4. ive always found that phrasing funny, then again, having coming out of the Ozark traditional folk craft, we knew whom to respect and whom our leadership was/is as it readable known and understood. so thats not a problem in our community, like wise its all to do with folk and the people, to which is why i always find these arguments and posts so funny, just makes me shake my head at the “pagan” community. PST is another funny practice to me as at least within my home Tradition and the other Traditional groups, this Isn’t a problem, you knew that if you were not at the covenstead or at the location of rite/ritual by a certain time you were just not admitted to the rite/ritual and barred from being there as is custom plain and simple.i find all of these thing just a cop-out and really show’s the immaturity as well lack of understanding also lack of really knowing one’s faith the practices the lore as apposed to just playing at it.

  5. I am very grateful for this and your related posts, Shauna. I have a do-er’s irony for you from my experience: the entire discussion must be very public, very loud, and must never end, not even go quiet for a short time.

    Leaders worthy of the label see this irony eventually. No matter how successful they are as leaders, regardless of the recognition their communities accord them, they find it next to impossible to find someone to take their place and carry forward.

    Established clergies solve this problem systemically. They are in the business of training the next generation of leaders. They have the control and oversight to identify the good ones and weed out the bad ones… a poor reiteration of your words, and a bit of disclosure of my own personal experience and frustration (and burn-out).

    There’s the catch-22 with it. We need a strong structure and leadership to promote and facilitate bringing up new leaders. I’ll add more comments later.

  6. Excellent points about leadership in the Pagan community. I can’t believe people make the herding cats joke, that’s really rude. Then again I didn’t understand the book “Who Moved the Cheese?” the supposedly leadership book of the ages. Kudos to you for the work you are doing to shake things up a bit and ask people to look at themselves and realize we ALL are part of the solution. Thanks.

  7. Shauna – i found your post linked from TWH today and really found it relevant, funny and practical. As being the HPT of my HPS and basically running a Coven for 33 years I can tell you that burn out was my main problem. In fact i left for awhile just because of it to “take a sabbatical” but then returned. Now all our degree initiates are such stable hard working individuals it is a dream. I am going to reblog this to my more general BSSS blog but our COC blog is http://covenofthecatta.wordpress.com/ BB. Lee / Shawnus

  8. Reblogged this on Blau Stern Schwarz Schlonge and commented:
    My comments to this great post relevant to Pagans and Witches and Any leaders of Any groups, because people-in-groups have the same dynamics even if it is the PTA or SCA – “Shauna – i found your post linked from TWH today and really found it relevant, funny and practical. As being the HPT of my HPS and basically running a Coven for 33 years I can tell you that burn out was my main problem. In fact i left for awhile just because of it to “take a sabbatical” but then returned. Now all our degree initiates are such stable hard working individuals it is a dream. Thank you and i am reblogging this at my BSSS blog.”

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  10. http://www.churchofasphodel.org/articles/why-my-aunt-judy-isnt-a-pagan-or-how-far-we-still-have-to-go.html Have you read this article? Right on the mark. The herding cats thing is funny the first couple times then it gets old and becomes an excuse, same with “Pagan Standard Time”. I think there are many Pagans who do not attend events because they are fed up with dysfunction, many people are also preoccupied with jobs, childcare etc. Some people also consider their hobbies to be as important or more important as their religion. (In the Twin Cities, for years there was a fuss over scheduling Pagan Pride at the same time as Renaissance Festival. When they avoided scheduling them at the same time, the attendance was the same. Some of us join other liberal spiritual communities that are more stable: UUs, Quakers, UCC etc. It’s funny among many spiritual reasons, I also became a Pagan for social ones- as someone with Asperger’s I could blend in pretty well. There is always *someone* in the room that acts more strangely than me. But the amount of untreated/unaddressed mental illness and other issues is a huge elephant in the room that is being ignored, and that’s bad for my own mental health. I try to help people when I can, refer them to professionals, but they need to admit that they have a problem.

  11. Pingback: Top 10 Pagan Quotes of 2014 | Intersections

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