Q of the Week: Leadership

Leaving aside, for the moment, the observation that not all pagans are involved in open public groups that have or require leaders; and leaving aside, for the moment, that no one is under any obligation to join such groups…

As I was surfing through the back issues of a few popular pagan blogs, I came across this, by Anne Hill, written about a year ago. It has to do with some of her personal thoughts concerning Reclaiming Tradition, but it is relevant to a lot of the pagan movement as a whole. Here’s the quote that caught my attention:

I think abolishing hierarchy is stupid and a waste of time. If you are interested in equality at all costs, you should never have gone looking for your power in the first place. Holding authority with integrity is more important than making others feel good.

Read the whole article here.

Consensus and egalitarianism was one of the founding principles of Reclaiming, since (if I understand the group’s principles properly) it was thought that most, if not all, forms of heirarchy and leadership are inherently oppressive. (Reclaiming members: please correct me if I’m wrong here.)

Indeed consensus, accountability, and democratic “checks and balances” form a very important part of the organisational structure of almost every pagan group that I have been involved in, over the last almost-twenty years. In one group that I was briefly instrumental in forming, the very first thing that the other founders wanted to do was establish the means to remove anyone who takes on a leadership position of any kind. In another group I once helped to create, there was no formal leadership at all: just a shared literature and group of symbols and practices. But within a few years a certain bullish individual arranged to make herself the Archdruid and now the organisation essentially belongs to her. (Every once in a while people ask if I’m still involved in this group. The answer is no.)

In various groups that uphold consensus-building as a primary value, the word consensus often becomes code for “the opinion of the most outspoken, bullish person”. Those who disagreed with that person, even if they had good reason to disagree, sometimes are accused of “holding up the process” or “disrespecting the consensus” or “not being a team player”.

Because of experiences like these, I find myself agreeing with Anne’s remarks above. I’ve also studied a little bit of anthropology, and it seems to me that a little bit of heirarchy is a normal and natural part of any human society. The evidence of 60,000 years of human history and culture has convinced me that people can’t do without leaders. Even a group as small as a dozen people will have one or two members who do more than others to keep the group together and keep it active, or who are turned to more often for help and advice. This creates heirarchies of leadership, even if covertly so.

So, my friends, this week’s question concerns leadership. Is the hypothesis that people can’t do without leaders correct? Do others have experience with covert heirarchies in egalitarian groups? If that hypothesis is true, it might be better to encourage certains forms of personal excellence in our leaders, rather than insist upon consensus and egalitarianism. This opens the question: what should we expect from our leaders? What do we want them to do? What would a non-oppressive kind of leadership for pagans look like? Aside from integrity, as mentioned by Anne, what other values should we look for in our leaders?

This entry was posted in Archive 2007-2009. Bookmark the permalink.

12 Responses to Q of the Week: Leadership

  1. erynn999 says:

    I think you’re right, as is Anne. Leaders of whatever kind will arise in small groups. It’s probably best to choose them rather than have them choose themselves, because when the latter happens you’re never certain what you’re going to get.

    As to what we should look for, aside from integrity, I would say openness to others’ opinions, organizational ability, intelligence, basic kindness, and the ability to share. There are probably a lot of other qualities that should be on that list, but I’d say all of these were lacking in the US under the Bush administration, for instance.

    In my experience, “consensus” usually means one of two things. 1. The person willing to veto gets their way. 2. The person willing to step on others gets their way. I have rarely seen it work otherwise.

  2. marytek says:

    Knowledge – it’s surprise how many neo-pagan leaders actually lack knowledge.. there hordes of third-degrees wandering about the place with very little knowledge, but due to their advancement in Wicca they are considered a High Priest/ess.

    Administration – a good chunk of a leader’s time is taken up with administration, be it paperwork, organising events (circles, rits, whatever you want to call them) or delegating mundane tasks like who will be getting the candles this week

    People Skills – have to be able to work with your own peeps, and with those outside of your group in a fashion that doesn’t cause tension; and be able to facilitate in situations which require a good interpersonal skills (ie. counselling, arbitration etc)

    Love of Community
    Love of one’s own spiritual path – there are too many peeps out there who don’t live their paths, and treat it much like catholics do their religion — they go to “service” and other than that it has no bearing on their everyday lives

  3. dubhlainn says:

    I am going to use the most overused word in all of Pagandom, but in this case I really do think it fits.

    Balance… a good leader has to balance the ability to lead (which I am viewing as making directional decisions for the group, the ability delegate, and the responcibility to enforce the policies of the group) with the ability to serve (to be a teacher, advisor, friend, mentor, and/or good listener).

    The virtues I expect are courage, perserverance, and the ability to admit when one i wrong (and make changes to fix it).

  4. alfrecht says:

    It’s an interesting issue, and one which I’ve wrangled with in the past quite heavily…

    I think it’s pretty much impossible, when more than about four people get together (or, arguably, two!), that one of those will be better informed, more charismatic, more organizationally minded, more called to service, etc. With any luck, enough of those characteristics will line up in one person, as opposed to being spread over several. When that occurs, and when everyone can get over their own egos enough to recognize that, then the person with the best qualifications should end up being the “leader,” even if only informally and without any fanfare, title, or the like associated with it.

    That has been the case with two groups with which I’ve been involved now. As long as no one starts to get head trips about “I’m the leader, look at me, look at how great I am,” this can work well in a somewhat unstructured and un-hierarchical manner. It has done well enough in the Ekklesía Antínoou, and also in our local CR Schmooze in Seattle. Of course, there are people who are acknowledged as the main organizers, the better informed, and so forth, but in these cases, I don’t think the people involved are too keen on elevating themselves, or making their knowledge base and organizational tendencies things to be praised. (However, I know I’m very biased in saying so, because I happen to be one of the people concerned!)

    If leaders are chosen or appointed, I think some of these personal quality matters should be taken very seriously into consideration: among them are humility, a thirst for and complete openness to dialogue and democratic process, a desire to serve others, a dedication to the “cause” for which the group has been formed, and a “light touch” as far as the actual leadership process is concerned. Many other virtues are quite useful, but these would be the bare necessity, in my view.

  5. > Is the hypothesis that people can’t do without leaders correct?

    Absolutely. In the first place, we’re pack animals, the end. In the second, if you map out on a Cartesian Plane people’s opinions of the correct course to follow, as number of persons implicated approaches infinity, the mean vector approaches {0,0,0}.

    Rejection of leadership is a baby-with-the-bathwater reaction to *bad* leadership, based on a well-meaning but false definition of leadership.

    Leadership is *not* a position of power. It is a position of trust and responsibility. A leader is agreed upon by the majority, and the power rests with the led, who have the responsibility to keep tabs on the leader, and select a new one when the current leader no longer leads responsibly. The led have all the power, because they *choose* to follow the best leader – and everyone recognises that the best leader for one circumstance is not necessarily the best leader for another.

    Or it would be like that, in a community that understood leadership properly.


  6. Anonymous says:

    I don’t think it’s possible for humans to do without leadership, for all of the reasons mentioned above. I think it’s possible to do without authority, that is, formally designated leaders whose power derives from their office rather than their personal qualities. I just don’t think it is a good idea to do so, except under specialized circumstances. One human personality, no matter how charismatic, can only provide focus and cohesion to a limited number of people, against a limited degree of entropy. Beyond that, the leader has to start actively seeking increasing degrees of control, and that can lead unfortunate places.

    With formal leadership, it’s a system of rules that governs; flesh and blood humans animate that system of rules the way an actor animates a role. The role can be written well or badly, and the actor can play it well or badly, but if they act it badly then they can be swapped out for someone who does it better. And a role can be rewritten, without changing the personality of the actor. You are able to swap out the weak or damaged parts of the system without dismantling the whole structure.

    A trait I would recommend for leaders? Perspective. An understanding of how the group fits together, both internally and with the other entites with which it interacts. Someone needs to see the ‘big picture’ to understand what’s working, what’s not, and why.


  7. lupabitch says:

    Humanity. Which means: a social being possessed of awareness of impact on other social beings, but not to the neglect of one’s own needs, and vice versa. Also: prone to making errors, just like any other human being. No pedestal necessary.

  8. abbadie says:

    When there is no leading person or persons, it’s like jumping on a car with nobody driving. You just stay at the parking lot pretending you are getting anywhere; if, by some remote chance, you manage to move the car, the crash won’t take long to occur.

    Waay back when I first dove into the so-called “neo-pagan community”, I ended up joining a makeshift group of beginners who got together weekly to study and experiement stuff. The first rule created was the eclectic’s commandment: “nobody will be a leader”. Of course, it all went to heck quickly -when it finally started going anywhere at all, that is!

    That’s the disgrace of the masses of self-taught folks who even believe that actual initiation within a tradition is somehow abusive; a group of such people will never achieve anything at all, because they believe the only rule is “I will do whatever I like, nothing else!” This goes together with “if you are critical or refuse to take any of us at face value, you are negative and troublemaking!” (I had my first taste of that when I bothered to point out that a guy was expounding Marvel Comics stories and not norse mythology).

    A leader, I think, must not only strive to avoid inflating their own ego and feeling “above” the rest, but they must also be very careful to stop anybody who tends to do so from elevating them to such “high” position. The most objective and humble of leaders will find their efforts gone to ruin if they fail to stop even a few individuals from looking up to them in a disproportionate way.

    Not as easy as it may sound, since they will need another very important trait in order to do that -and, in fact, in order to do any leadership work at all: be a good judge of character. This may allow to detect whether any given person has issues or burdens, frictions or conflict between two or more members, health issues, unjustified fears and insecurities, actual and proper preparedness for a role/activity/experience…

    • Anonymous says:

      Pagan Leadership

      We need leaders. Leaders do not need to be dictators. Leadership of others, as has been said, is based on principles and practises. Pretending we have no leaders or no need for leaders is very much like the example above. No one drives the car, so the car goes no where.

      I have seen subversion, a political reactionary tactic used to undermine institutional authority, create more problems than they are worth. All that subversion really does in the end is start a revolution that ends in no direction, really. As a form of political protest, it is great. It is disasterous and completely disrespectful in small groups, and most pagan groups are small group based. Subversion is a disrespectful, covert behaviour that says not only a lack of trust in the leadership, but is also a form of hostile expression that happens a lot in pagan circles. It serves no one, except to dishearten and disillusion those who are foolish enough to attempt pagan leadership.

  9. It is times like this where we may glean understanding from Weber and Durkheim. Lol, seriously 🙂

  10. snowcalla says:

    Is the hypothesis that people can’t do without leaders correct?

    Yes, but perhaps not for the reasons people may think. A leader is someone who others willingly choose to follow. Is it ethical to try to stop others from chosing to follow someone’s lead whom they respect and admire? To try to convince them that what they are doing is wrong and should be avoided? I don’t think so.

    what should we expect from our leaders?
    That would change depending on the group and (in some cases) the day. If leaders are not self-appointed and are picked by the group and can be unpicked by the group, then the group will choose based on what their need is. This is a natural process.

  11. Anonymous says:


    Very helpful, Brendan. BTW, I find your books and online writing always refreshing. A couple of years ago, I was part of a Druid group in the US whose archdruids became very repressive. The group used all the language of democracy and mutual respect, but in reality, the “rule” was that anyone who asked questions that upset the archdruids would be silenced. I was silenced more than once. The experienced clarified for me the kind of Druid path I am on, and I said those in the grove I had formed in that order that I would be leaving the order. They responded that they wanted to continue in a grove with me. I told them this: that I had become clear about the path I was on and that I would walk it solitarily or in a group if they found what I was doing useful.

    In short, they all followed me, and we have created a new order, The Druid Order of Three Realms. It is clearly a revival style order, and in the process of setting it up, we have provided for a leadership of Custodians who roll off and are elected over 5 year cycles. Here’s my point. When I got clear and took hold of my own power, it freed me to walk my path and seemed to give some direction to others. I became the de facto “leader” whether I wanted to or not. But, in setting up our new grove and order, we very carefully set up an order that allows, almost requires, the individual to define his/her path, to find his/her power. We are democratic. WE do honor the individual’s integrity. But we also provide for a leadership in the group.

    Ours is an on-going experiment. Your reflections here are very helpful.

    By sky, earth and sea,

    Bob Patrick

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *