There are a lot of problems common to leadership that trip up people who haven’t had training in group dynamics, communication, or who haven’t been encouraged to do self-reflective work. Or even just people who have poor self esteem and have no idea how that impacts them and the group they are running.
We’ll call this “honest mistakes.” These are the honest mistakes that can cost us a great deal; they can blow up a group, and leave us wondering what happened.
The assumption for this article is that we aren’t talking about the incurably egotistical and unstable leaders I’ve mentioned in past articles. Largely we’re just talking about a few different types of things that pop up in the realm of Pagan leadership that are general challenges of a few different types. They may seem a little hodgepodge, but they do overlap fairly heavily.
First, a quote from someone who posted a comment on one of my Facebook conversations on Leadership:
“Leadership in the pagan community isn’t about stability, capability, or qualifications. It’s about charisma. Having rejected churches led by people with Phd’s in divinity and counseling credentials, Pagans tend to gravitate to a leader who makes them feel important themselves, and fulfills their fantasies on some level. A lot of coven leaders of both sexes therefore end up using sexuality to “teach” their followers. Some of them also encourage the paranoia and tribalism of their group, offering “protection,” training in psychic self-defense, and an “us” to belong to that will take fighting “them” seriously, playing on fears and capitalizing on drama to encourage dependence. I think when you have unpaid clergy, you’re gonna get narcissists, because the other rewards of the position have been stripped away, along with its demands. ”
Immaturity and Codependence
I think this rather sums up a lot of the challenges we face. When anyone can be a leader, just by stepping up and organizing a group, we end up with a lot of folks with no training at all. And, ultimately I’ve seen this to be true…many of the groups that seem to cohere together are around a charismatic leader. And I do see a lot of Pagans–and I’m going to stick my neck out here–that are really emotionally immature. I know I was when I started out.
Many Pagans want someone to tell them they are important. They want someone who fulfills their fantasies. They want someone charismatic and magical and powerful. They want someone who can teach them powerful magic so that they can be powerful. And why is this? Because we live in a scary world. In fact, I think the scarier the world is–or, the more of a place we are in personally where the world seems scary–the more we want to believe in magic, that we can somehow control the scary world and keep us safe. But, that goes more into my hexes/psychic attack post.
So even if you are a pretty mature, grounded group leader, some of the people coming to you will be wanting things from you that you aren’t prepared to give. And when people don’t get what they want out of a relationship, that causes conflict. One of the root causes of any conflict is expectations that never got communicated. I have another post going up just on that topic in a few days.
If you stepped in as a group leader with any number of your own personal issues–and, many of us do–those issues are going to rise up. If you have issues around self worth, that’ll come up. And most of us have these issues. They are honest mistakes. But if you want to avoid the above dynamic, those are things you’ll need to work on. I’ve touched on ways to do that in previous articles, but therapy is always a great place to start.
Peer Support, Training, Resources
What often comes up in conversations about challenges with Pagan leadership are the things we often don’t have access to. Peer support, leadership training, salaries, sabbaticals…things that religious leaders of other traditions sort of take for granted.
It’s why I do a lot of the work that I do to teach leadership skills. We also have Cherry Hill Seminary which is offering great classes via distance education, and a few resources here and there, but it’s not (yet) enough and it’s not really accessible for most Pagans out there. I’m a big advocate for Pagans getting over the “We can’t pay for that” but, I’m a little bound by it too–because I’ve given over a lot of my life to teaching leadership, which is often unpaid, I myself can’t afford to take classes at a place like Cherry Hill. I’m a huge supporter of their work, but I can’t afford it, and neither can a lot of the leaders out there who desperately need more training.
If you were a UU minister, you’d go to seminary. You could get financial aid, and when you were done, you’d be placed with a congregation and get a salary.
Without that leadership training, pastoral care training, leaders are often flying blind. Plus, they aren’t getting paid for what they do. Basically, any Pagan leader out there has to pay out of pocket for leadership training without any reasonable expectation of being able to get paid back for it.
However–the more we talk about these issues, and the more we collaborate, the more we can begin to build some of these resources to share with each other. Sometimes it’s useful to vent a little bit about the resources you don’t have access to, or the problems you are facing, because that’s a place to start. That can help you recognize what resources you need, and from there, you can work to find them.
No surprise here. Poor communication is one of the core issues that I see in community conflicts. I often say that we have this theory we’re all speaking the same language. Truth is, we all were raised by different families. What’s ok in one family isn’t socially acceptable by another. And yes, people do have different communication styles and needs. You can do a little Googling on “Multiple learning modalities” and also the book “The Five Love Languages” may offer some insights into how people “hear” things.
One leader I regularly work with, for instance, is prefers verbal–he likes to talk things through. Visual aids do nothing for him. Me, I’m a visual person, I’d rather work things out via email or chat, but he has a hard time working that way. We compromise by planning things on Skype.
Exploring communication styles is assuming that all the parties involved are fairly stable. When you’re working with someone who has unmedicated Bipolar, for instance, it may not matter how much you work on your own communication skills. It won’t even matter if they have taken a communication class themselves. If they are in a deep mood swing, all bets may be off. I say this as someone who has worked with people with unmedicated Bipolar, and someone who’s been in groups with people with Bipolar who were doing a great job of managing their illness.
As leaders, we have to learn the communication skills to try and be able to work with many different communication styles. But, we also have to recognize when no amount of healthy communication will help a situation. Sometimes we have to just cut our losses. That goes more into the articles I’ve written on Conflict Resolution where I detail the types of folks that you, unfortunately, just aren’t going to have much success in working through things with, no matter how hard you try.
However, assuming that we’re talking about generally sane, reasonable people, it’s amazing how many conflicts pop up just because people have different communication preferences and aren’t “hearing” each other. Are you sending emails to someone who doesn’t respond or who doesn’t answer all your questions? Are you calling someone who hates talking on the phone? Perhaps it might be time to talk frankly about communication preferences to find a way to make things work.
Getting Leadership Education
Leadership classes tend to have a bias toward corporate leadership, possibly a focus on not-for-profit leadership, but in both cases they are typically assuming a hierarchy, and beyond that, assuming that there are bosses and people who are being paid to obey their boss. They aren’t usually working with the many different models of leadership that grassroots (Pagan) groups might utilize. They are assuming that you have a mission statement, corporate bylaws, and a host of other structures and assumptions that aren’t necessarily true for a small Pagan group.
Now, there are models of leadership that many people are trying to infuse into corporate culture but that Paganism is actually ripe for, and that’s transformative or transformational leadership and servant leadership. This is the idea that a leader is a servant of the group, there to steward the group. There are a few books out there on the topic but admittedly, they are weighty tomes.
However, for anyone taking a regular leadership class, keep in mind that there is probably an inherent bias toward hierarchical leadership and an assumption that you have paid employees. There’s often the assumption that you are a corporation working toward profit, or possibly a Not-For-Profit which is a little more accurate. Working with volunteers vs. paid employees is a wholly different structure with different challenges.
So if you have the rare benefit of having taken some college-level leadership classes, or leadership seminars through work, many of the “best practices” you were taught are not going to directly apply to your Pagan group. There are things that work, and things that don’t, so it’s a mistake to try and take those techniques right “out of the box.” It’s apples and oranges sometimes, so before you try to just use a technique you learned in the workplace or the military, think about how it might be different for your group.
Leadership, Serving the Group, and Impact
When I teach Pagan leadership work, my goal is for every person to see that they are a leader, to see how they are a leader within the group. Someone who picks up a broom is a leader, someone managing potluck is a leader, the visionary spearheading things is a leader. This is from the perspective of servant leadership.
If each person who is volunteering, managing, working toward the health of the group stepped into their own responsibility and saw how they are a part of the group, a part of the leadership of the group, and worked to act accordingly, a lot of the petty disputes might simmer down. I can’t tell you how many people have joked with me, “I picked up a broom to help clean up after ritual, and suddenly I was in charge of the group.”
When we take responsibility to help, we are leading. And when we are leaders, our words have more impact on the group. We have to be more responsible for our impact. We have to be more mature, we have to think ahead to the impact of our words and actions. If everyone who is engaging in leadership in a grassroots group owned that they are leaders, and learned how to be better leaders, some of these conflicts would be reduced.
Many people resist being a leader. And I get why; a lot of people never wanted it. Some don’t want to be visible. Some are so afraid of stepping into a position of egotism that they reject any overt leadership role, even though–by their actions–they are clearly leaders.
This sets up tensions in your groups as well as what’s sometimes called a shadow hierarchy. Fred isn’t the formal leader of the group, but everyone looks to Fred for what to do. Fran isn’t the leader, but she’s the most verbal and opinionated and willing to speak up. Chris isn’t the leader, but whines the most, so people do what Chris wants. If we actually talk about leadership and power in our groups we can prevent a lot of that–and this is the stuff that causes a lot of those petty little conflicts that escalate fast. Pretending that you don’t have a leader or you aren’t a leader doesn’t help anything.
Knowing Ourselves: What Type Of Leader/Volunteer Are You?
It is important also to be self reflective about the skills we bring and our role in a group. Some people are naturally visionaries, some are better at managing a task, some are better suited to just helping; they don’t want a big leadership commitment but they can do a grocery run or help with setup. A lot of leadership problems crop up when people are not aware of what they do well, and what they don’t do well. And when people ask others to do things that are way outside their comfort zone. It depends on
- People’s natural talents, skills, and inclinations, as well as
- Their level of motivation.
I’m a good graphic designer, but that doesn’t mean I want to volunteer my graphic design skills for every initiative I’m part of. Just because I know someone in my group does XYZ doesn’t mean they have the time (or group investment) to do that for my group.
This is even an issue that can crop up in brainstorming. Some people are abstract thinkers, others are concrete thinkers. Abstract thinkers are good at envisioning things and brainstorming from scratch. Concrete thinkers can talk about ideas already on the table but have trouble visualizing new things.
Often times leaders burn out because they take on a lot of leadership jobs that they are not inherently good at, or, they really hate doing. And yeah, we all have to slog through some annoying tasks to do this work. But if you are stuck doing way more work that you hate, over time it’s going to get to you. This is why volunteers leave, and it’s why leaders burn out.
I’ve worked with people that I think would be great workshop facilitators or ritualists, but their interests don’t lie that way, or they don’t care enough to do the work to become better facilitators. This isn’t a snide judgment, just an observation that some people will want to do things, and others won’t. Self reflection is really key here; we have to know what we are good at, and how much we want to help a group, so that we don’t commit to things we’re bad at.
For instance, if I ever volunteer to manage food at an event, run away! You won’t be happy with how things turn out. When I take on tasks that I’m not skilled at and have no interest in, that’s when I’m most likely to drop the ball as a volunteer or as a leader. Knowing yourself–and helping your group members know themselves–is really
Stubborn, Focused Visionaries
The people that actively step into being leaders are the few left standing who are stubborn enough, who have the drive and motivation to do this work, whether or not they are qualified, or reasonable people, or stable, or even nice. They are the ones who had the vision and the drive, but…the nature of stubborn visionaries is just that–they are stubborn. Maybe they had a vision, but in many cases, it seems like that vision is wrapped up in their own egotism.
That could so easily be me. It’s the dark mirror I face all the time. I’ve been there, I understand it from inside. I’m absolutely the stubborn visionary. And I find that visionaries like me tend to have a problem where we connect our own ego/self identity with that of whatever event we’re planning. To sum up rather a lot of personal work I’ve done, I used to be in more the position of “People will like me because I did this event, so this event has to be perfect.”
I think that a lot of the people who end up as leaders are the people who are defensive and have something to prove. They need to get their drive and motivation from somewhere I suppose; it’s thankless work a lot of the time. It’s certainly where I used to get a lot of my drive.
Too Much Selflessness
Conversely, there’s also a bit of a problem with people who are too selfless. Leaders are often admonished to be selfless, however, too much selflessness is actually a bad thing. There are leaders I know who define themselves by their service and selflessness, but it’s actually an ego crutch. “If I’m seen as selfless, people will like me.” It can be indicative of huge holes in the self esteem. Ego is self identity, it’s not a bad thing. (Egotism/arrogance is the problematic one.) Self isn’t bad. Service isn’t bad. They have to be done in balance otherwise there are other consequences.
In some situations, I’ve seen caregivers (usually moms) who gave so much of themselves that they lost themselves, and then they end up with problems because they don’t know who they are. Or others who served so much they lost needed income or developed health problems. I know of Pagan leaders who let people in desperate need of a place to live into their home, only to have their home get trashed. Or Pagan leaders who’ve offered their services as pastoral counselors and had group members berate them for not getting back to them while the leader was at their day job. These leaders burn out eventually.
Where do Mature Leaders Go?
The mature people who would be excellent leaders if they were doing that work full-time and had leadership training…well, we don’t get to see too much of them. Many of them get frustrated and bail from the community. Some become Buddhists. Or the motivated, defensive, egomaniac leaders undermine them, and they respect themselves too much to put up with that and go solitary.
I suppose part of my mission is to give those leaders a shot, give them the skills to at least not get bowled over by the jerks out there. I can’t make the jerks go away, but I can work to raise up the people they are tearing down.
A lot of these scenarios bring up places where people just make honest mistakes. Where things happen and we don’t know why. There’s lots of other honest mistakes out there, but hopefully these offer some things you can explore for yourself and the groups you work with.