Conflict Resolution 5: Don’t Bother

HPIM1977.JPGI touched on this a little in the previous 4 articles on Conflict Resolution and the rest of the leadership series. However, it’s worth stating more explicitly. Sometimes, it’s not worth bending over backwards to try and sheepdog people into a conflict resolution. Sometimes, people are just going to keep causing drama.

In fact, the very drama of trying to get them into a mediated session is the drama that they want. Usually these are the egomaniacs and unstable mentally ill people I’ve mentioned before. Typically they have no idea that they are literally bending situations to create even more drama.

Some people crave attention. Going back to the underlying needs addressed in Part 2, their need is for attention, to be seen and valued. However, they aren’t getting that need met, in part because their attempts to get that need met typically involve them being whiny, annoying, irritating, or belligerent.

Here’s a couple of quick examples of “Do not pass go,” followed by a longer profile of behaviors to watch out for.

Stuck In Mythic
So once upon a time, Person A was convinced that Person B hated him. “She came into the room, and when she saw me, she left.” I asked if he’d ever talked to Person B about it. “No, of course not. She hates me.” Despite several hours of working through the Four Levels of Reality tool to get him to Physical Reality, he could not separate his mythic reality. “I just know she hates me.” He wasn’t open to me talking to Person B to find out, he wasn’t open to a mediation session, he was just convinced that Person B hated him. And in fact, suspected that many other people hated him.

In this instance, despite a lot of effort to work with Person A, who was motivated to help and be part of the group, it turned out that Person A had a number of issues. He was diagnosed Bipolar and not in any treatment, he had been abusing his partner (spitting on her, choking her, verbally and emotionally abusing her), and he had been repeatedly hitting on women in the group, or staring at their chests. I also discovered that he’d been kicked out of two previous groups for being belligerent and he had problems with female authority figures.

As I’ve said before, I always want to give someone the benefit of the doubt, but, I also have to be realistic. With treatment for his Bipolar and a few years of therapy, he could be a functioning member of a group, but he’s way past my pay grade. The primary red flag in this situation that led to me understanding all the rest was that you couldn’t talk this guy down off a wall. Once Person A was convinced of his Mythic Reality, no amount of Physical Reality would sway him. If you spend several hours talking to someone and they just can’t wrap their brain around the idea that their version of The Truth isn’t set in stone, that’s a big red flag.

Stuck in Mythic plus Antisocial Personality Disorders
Person A was convinced that Person B was out to get him–same scenario as above. He’d dealt with her before in a previous group and she had betrayed him and others. After spending several hours with Person A trying to get him to articulate what Person B had done in terms of Physical Reality (ie, taking him through the Four Levels of reality and out of Mythic and Emotional space and into Physical Reality) he literally could not articulate what Person B had done. “If Person B is there, bad things happen. Person B will betray people. Person B is a sociopath.”

Now–here’s the rub on this one.

Person A is going to consistently cause group conflicts because they literally cannot get out of their own Mythic Reality. They are stuck in their own story of other people’s motivation. However–in this particular instance–Person B really was a sociopath. You might begin to see why conflict resolution is so difficult. Often times, both parties enmeshed in a conflict are escalating things and making it worse.

In this particular example. Person B had done such a number on me by playing the victim that I allowed her into leadership positions in my group, ultimately giving her the leverage she needed to help build a coalition against me. There were other factors, including my former partner, but this led to the complete implosion of that particular group. If I’d understood the red flags for the Antisocial personality disorders and Person B’s behavior, she’d never have gained a foothold in the group.

Rule of thumb: If someone can’t articulate things in terms of Physical Reality, despite four hours (yes, four hours) of discussion on the matter, this is probably someone who is going to continue causing conflicts because of their paranoia and being stuck in mythic reality.

However, here’s a caveat. Sometimes the inability of Person A to put their finger on what Person B did may actually be a flag for Person B having one of the major personality disorders, like Narcissistic or Borderline Personality Disorder, or being a sociopath. All of those fall into the “Antisocial personality disorders” and you will never regret learning more about those. Once you know some of the flags for them, it can help you keep your group healthier.

If you have someone in your group who has one of the antisocial personality disorders, it may be extremely difficult for other group members to put their finger on exactly what is wrong, what that person did. This is in part because people with any of the major antisocial personality disorders are extremely good at manipulation. They twist people around and if you aren’t familiar with the red flags, you’ll get caught up in it. Heck, even when I do know the red flags, it’s still hard to unravel the knots on what’s happening.

Personality Profile: Problematic Group Member
Below is an extended example of red flags of a problematic individual that many of you may recognize in your own groups. Starhawk would call them the “Power Under” person. This is the person that is repeatedly causing group conflicts. I’m not going to say there is no help for this person, however, the likelihood of any conflict resolution is pretty limited. If someone is on the extreme end of these red flags, I might skip the attempt to do conflict resolution entirely and just skip to the end game and kick them out of my group.

That’s harsh, and it’s something I would only do in extreme situations, but sometimes, the game of the problem-causer is to create further drama by drawing you into a process of conflict resolution. Sometimes, the only way out is to hold a boundary and say “No” and end the cycle of drama.

Some folks I know in a semi-rural area are working to create a coalition of local groups. Sort of a unity council. They all live about 2-3 hours apart, but they’ve seen how hard it is to run events and try to attract people to come to rituals and put things on when there are just so few Pagans in any one area. However, if they band together and go to Town A for one sabbat, Town B, for another, and Town C for the next…you get the picture. They can share resources, not have to run all the rituals themselves, get helpers…it’s a good idea.

Of course, you can also see the challenges organizing over that big of a distance. One of the group members early on started whining a lot. She’d complain on the group page. She didn’t like the logo that one member had designed. She frequently complained that even when this coalition met closer to her side of the state, she still had to drive 45 minutes and she couldn’t afford it. She frequently complained that people weren’t listening to her ideas.

The person who is in the role of the organizer of this merry band has spent hours and hours and hours talking to the group member with the problems. In fact, I spent several hours talking to that group member on the main organizer’s behalf, since I know all the parties involved.

When the group opted to meet at the central town’s location, which was even further from the complainer’s location, the group member (unsurprisingly) complained about that, and how they always had to drive. The main organizer pointed out that people from her town had been doing most of the driving so far, and it was only fair to bring things central. Further, they were still trying to get people involved who were even further away, and that would require driving to that side of the state at times.

Some of you will be unsurprised that ultimately, the complainer left the group in a huff.

Cutting the Cancer
Now, I knew this would happen long before it did. In fact, the group organizer and I spent a fair amount of time discussing how to handle this particular complainer. She, and many other group organizers facing someone like this, want to hear how they can help that person become involved without them being a major pain in the ass. This person meant well! She volunteered for things, she wanted to see better resources for her community.

However, she also was completely the source of her own problems. She was causing the very things that were distancing her from the group, and making her feel less and less heard, making her act out more. Again, it goes back to those needs, and ultimately, to our issues, particularly around self esteem. It’s a vicious cycle.

What I’ve told to many organizers dealing with someone like this is, you’re going to have to kick them out of the group sooner, rather than later, if their behaviors are that disruptive and they are not receptive to any feedback. In this particular case, the small group of leaders was new, and having to kick someone out could have devastated their momentum. When a group is new and unsure, dealing with a major group dynamics issue can be the kiss of death. People get too angry and frustrated and bail after a big conflict.

Delay the Inevitable
You can delay how long it takes for someone like this to throw a big fit by focusing attention on them, praising them frequently, and bending over backwards to give them important-sounding tasks that they enjoy and then praising them for doing that work. And–for that matter–though I might sound dismissive when I say that, as a leader, that’s sometimes the work I have to do with group members who are not that disruptive. Some people have poor self esteem and need a little bit of extra handholding. Some group members can work their way out of the whiny power-under place.

But that’s not the type of person I’m talking about here. I’m talking about the person that no attempts at skillful leadership on your part will help. In my own leadership hubris, I’ve worked with folks like this and though, “But I know all this stuff about leadership. I can ‘fix’ them, I can help them see how they are the source of their own problems.”

With some folks who just have poor self esteem and need to build some confidence, you can. For someone who has way more red flags and is more disruptive, you can’t. It’s above your pay grade, and the sooner you recognize that, the less time you’ll invest into someone who can cause a major blow up in your group.

However–with someone like this, the longer they are in the group, the more likely they are to build a coalition against the primary leader, or anyone whom they perceive as a threat. I liken it to a cancer. You can cut off a finger, or you can cut off a hand, or you can lose a whole limb. When you kick someone out of a group it’s always disruptive and painful, but if you do it sooner rather than later, it’s less disruptive.

Red Flags
Of course–this means you have to understand the differences between someone who can change their behavior, and someone who is way above your pay grade. Ie, someone who is not going to change. I’m not going to tell you this is easy. And as I’ve said so often before–good grief do I wish that I had more capacity to help the people who are acting out in this way. Because, I believe that many of them can be helped with time, patience, pastoral counseling, therapy, and love. And if our group leaders had better training, and infinite time and infinite resources, we could help some of these folks.

But sometimes, my job is to create a stable group so that in 5, 10, 20 years, that group does have the resources and the training to help people like this. A group that is strong and sustainable can actually handle someone more problematic. A newer group with leaders without a lot of training doesn’t have a chance.

Description of the red flags for this particular group member/type got long enough that that will be Part 6.

Filed under: Leadership, Pagan Community, Personal Growth Tagged: clergy, communication, community, community building, impact, Leaders, leadership, Pagan community, Paganism, Personal growth, personal transformation, shadow work

Conflict Resolution Part 4: At the Table

8240974_xxlNow that we’ve talked about a lot of the underlying causes of conflicts and the needs beneath them, lets talk about the actual process of trying to resolve a conflict between two or more people in some kind of mediated session.


By the time a conflict has gotten to the point where people are pissed off and not speaking and it’s a struggle to get them into a room with each other, your chances of positively resolving the conflict are pretty low, which is why the rest of the series of articles focuses on understanding conflict and unraveling it before it gets that far.

Now, there’s lots of different ways of getting people to the table. A mediation is different in some ways from a facilitated session where you, as the group leader, have the power to render a judgment and kick someone out of a group. It helps to understand what type of conflict resolution session you’re engaging in.

First, before there’s ever a conflict, it helps if the group has an agreement for conflict resolution. I’m amazed at how many groups have no behavioral agreements at all, much less an agreement about what behavior would lead to a mediated session. Such as, if 2 people have an issue and can’t resolve it, they must go to one of the 2 mediators established by the group. If this is a conflict between two sovereign group leaders, there’s no such hierarchical commandment that they must follow, but let’s assume for the moment that the agreement exists within a group and that the parties involved must agree to the mediation or resign from the group. Or, that the people in question are reasonable enough to agree to a mediation.

Thus, the first step is, you learn about the conflict. You will have the tendency to “side” with the person you know best, or, the person whose side you heard first. I’ve heard this called Polarizing, and it’s pretty common. It’s why in a community conflict people rush out to tell people their side first; we seem to instinctively know that people believe the first person they hear. We will also tend to “side” with the underdog, or the person who portrays themselves as the underdog. (Keep in mind that the one who comes across as the victim, isn’t always the victim.)

Don’t get mad at yourself for the instinct to take a side. Just acknowledge that yup, there you are falling for the polarizing thing. And then, work to gather more data and understand the whole situation. Just be aware of your instincts and whenever you find yourself taking a side, question it thoroughly. Interview all the parties involved. Try to do this in person, because you can learn a lot from body language, but, sometimes Skype or email are the only way to go for the data gathering, particularly if the parties live far away.

You’ll be doing a lot of listening. And fact checking. You want to understand those underlying needs. And, though your job as a mediator isn’t necessarily to lay blame (or, for that matter, to be someone’s therapist), understanding what happened is crucial. It’s important to understand if one of the parties is blatantly lying, because that impacts the next steps.

If you catch one of the parties in big, blatant, or consistent lies, it’s unlikely the conflict resolution is going to have any kind of positive outcome. I hate to be a Debbie Downer about that, but if one of the parties can’t be truthful, that’s a pretty big red flag. I’ve been in a mediated session (I was one of the two parties, not the mediator) when the other party began lying to gain the sympathy of the mediator. At the time, I didn’t know he was lying; he was talking about how his mother was dying of cancer and he was going to have to leave town in order to be with her.

So sometimes the lies aren’t necessarily easy to suss out; a chronic liar is usually a pretty good liar. Some of us have the instinct to sniff out a lie, some of us don’t. One of the best ways to suss out a liar is to get them to tell you about some things that someone else said, and then actually follow up and talk to that other person. You’d be surprised how many lies become clear when you take the direct approach.

One of my biggest pet peeves in any conflict is the “Well, people told me that they hate what Person B is doing.” “Who is people?” I ask. “Well, I can’t tell you that, they don’t want me to give their names.” In most cases, I ignore this as any kind of useful evidence. Sometimes, a liar will give out names if I pressure them, assuming that nobody would be direct enough to actually contact those people.

And the house of cards falls apart when you do, indeed, contact those folks. That’s why investigation is important, because you need to understand the story beneath the story.

Another red flag is abuse. In so many cases, there isn’t enough evidence, it’s Person A said, Person B said, however, sometimes there were witnesses and there’s a consistent pattern of behavior. In a situation like that, particularly involving physical abuse, your services as a mediator aren’t really what’s required–getting the victim out of the situation is. Oddly enough, it’s often the victim, who is stuck in the codependent spiral, who is trying to make the mediation happen so that they don’t have to acknowledge that it’s time to leave the relationship. The mediation is actually a stalling tactic on the victim’s part.

This is one of those areas that starts to stretch beyond my pay grade, but if I tend to look at my “job” in an instance like this as the same obligation that a therapist has. A therapist holds the things shared with them as confidential, unless they learn of someone’s intent do do themselves or another harm. If I feel that someone is in danger, then it may indeed be my obligation to involve the police, or help the victimized party get out of that situation. This is an extreme situation, and honestly, this is why I wish I had more training.

I’m not going to go into the nuances of what you should do in this situation as that’s a whole post on its own, and in this case, if I stumbled into something like this, I’d probably ask the advice of Selena Fox or someone else who has far more pastoral counseling training than I personally have.

Getting People to the Table
Making the assumptions that while there’s gnashing of teeth, there’s no blatant lying, and there’s no risk of escalating physical abuse, once you have gathered all the info you can, your job is to get the affected parties into a room together. Now–depending on the nature of the conflict, this meeting might involve a larger group, or, just two people. A larger group might be warranted if two members of a coven are fighting, and have been fighting in a way that has been disruptive to the whole group or involved the whole group. Or, if there’s a complicated family dynamic with multiple injured/angry parties.

However, what I’d suggest is that you try to first meet with the core affected parties, and meet with as few of them as possible. Often the primary conflict boils down to just two people. The reason to meet with them alone is pretty simple; people will put on a bigger show with an audience, and will be less likely to be vulnerable, less likely to back down. If you can actually get the two main parties to listen to each other, and communicate, and open up, then they can resolve their issues with each other first without any group shaming going on, or perception of group shame.

Remembering those underlying needs, and shadows, always keep in mind how people’s egos and self identity will drive their actions. The poorer someone’s self esteem, the more they will be driven by wanting people to have a “good” opinion of them. The perception of loss of status is tied into our ego identity and people will dig in their heels, even if they know they are wrong, rather than face the perception of the group shaming them for being wrong.

Example: The Core Components
I was once asked to do a conflict resolution process for a family in a dispute. Once I started gathering information about this particular dispute, I realized what a mess it was, though the dispute followed a fairly logical escalation. The person who asked me to intervene had been subject to the “I’m not speaking to you” end game by the other party and wanted to find a way to keep the communication door open. She wanted me to meet with the whole family in a mediated session to address the issues of the “Black Sheep” family member.

Except…as the information unraveled, the nature of the conflict became clearer to me that it was really a conflict between two primary players, and everyone else was just caught up in the fallout. Neither one of those players was going to back down in front of the rest of the family, so to address anything, I was going to need to get the two of them alone in a room together.

That’s about as far as I got in the info gathering process before one of the parties pulled the plug on the mediation.

Is it Mediation or a Judgment?
Now–I’m using the terms mediation here, and I should clarify that I’m painting with big brush strokes. It’s perhaps more accurate to say that sometimes I’m negotiating a conflict; if I were a true mediator, I would have no stake in the conflict. If I’m a group leader facilitating a session for two other group leaders, I still have a stake in it because I want things to go well.

Similarly, if I’m a group leader facilitating a mediated session for two of my group members, it might be more accurate to call me an arbiter or even a judge, because I will at some point be rendering a decision. A mediator is just there to make a safe space to listen and gets out of the way, letting the two parties come to terms with gentle guidance. If I’m a group leader, it may ultimately come to me to render a decision that one or more of the parties might get asked to leave the group, for instance.

And yes, that can be a wrenching decision particularly in Person A said, Person B said, when you don’t have all the data. In that case, I tend to make my decision based upon how people act within the process of the conflict resolution itself.

However, I am more than happy to render a decision based on people’s behavior during the mediation process itself. How we act when we are under stress tells a lot about us. And if someone turns into a raving jerk, I may realize that that person really wasn’t a good fit for my team in the first place.

Mediators, Arbiters, and Power Dynamics
You should be aware of how the power dynamic shifts depending on your role. If you’re a group leader arbitrating a dispute, then you have a dog in the game. The people involved in the conflict will feel more pressure to be believable, for you to be on their side, since you have power to make a decision about their involvement. So they may feel more pressure to lie, for instance, or fib. Whereas, the idea with a mediator is that this person has no power to render a decision, and thus, is a safe place to vent about what happened.

In many cases a mediation will be between two parties who have a vastly different power dynamic. For instance, and employee and employer, or, a coven member and coven leader, in which case, a neutral mediator is really important, since the person without power has to feel that they will be heard. The mediator also has to have enough respect that the person with power is willing to come to the table and listen and not just brush this off as their group member whining.

In a dynamic like that, your job as the mediator is probably (depending on the situation) to help the powerless person have a voice with someone who may not be willing to listen. On the other hand, part 4 of the conflict resolution series deals with when the underdog is the problem person in the group. More on that later.

Conflict Resolution and Communication
Essentially, your job as a mediator, negotiator, or arbiter, is to unravel the truth as best you can, and to get people to listen to each other. You’re trying to help them hear each other. Sometimes, what one person is saying sounds like “Wa wa, wa wa, wa wa wa” to the other person for various reasons.

It could be that they each have a different primary learning modality, or that they are the exact personality types on the Enneagram that shouldn’t work together.

Here’s a few examples.

Jumping to Conclusions
Let’s say that the conflict in this case is that Person A believes Person B hates them and is out to get them. When you have interviewed the various parties, the best you can understand is that Person B is a little annoyed by Person A, in large part because Person A is so defensive all the time. However, Person B doesn’t hate Person A.

Now, here’s a pickle, because ultimately the conflict is resolved by convincing Person A that Person B doesn’t hate them. However, future conflicts are kept from happening if Person A realizes that their own behavior is exacerbating things and that they are jumping to conclusions. So really, this is Person A’s nightmare; nobody is that defensive without self esteem issues, and to find out that people are irked at them, annoyed by them…major blow to the ego.

The Four Levels of Reality tool that I’ve mentioned before is a big helper here to help Person A to understand that Person B doesn’t hate them. But, a further commitment to personal growth work or therapy is ultimately going to help Person A be a healthy part of the group. And perhaps that’s outside of the scope of a mediated session, but it’s part of the process of longer term conflict resolution in a group.

What Did You Say?
Another example is when people just are failing to communicate. In one instance, I was asked to facilitate a board meeting of a group that just wasn’t on the same page. The group leader was strong, ambitious, a little harsh, definitely a control freak, and motivated by a drive to be a professional. She had been putting in long hours to run events on her land, and she wanted people to step in and help, but her volunteers always seemed to drop the ball. One volunteer in particular wanted to help with things like the newsletter, but she blew deadlines and failed to get things done. She had great ideas and was highly motivated on the idea level, but she had terrible follow through. Basically, the two of them were a personality match made in hell.

When this group leader sent out long emails about her ideas for future events to the board email list, she would hear nothing back from the board, and she would sit there and wonder if anyone cared and fume and get frustrated and sad.

Let’s look at the group’s side. They had volunteered their time to make the event happen, but then the group leader became a task master and was demanding more from them than they felt they agreed to. She wanted regular meetings which they had to fit into their schedule, and she sent out long emails that they didn’t have time or patience to read. Or, the emails seemed like the group leader had things in hand, so they didn’t feel they needed to response.

They had no idea the group leader was looking for a response from them.

So what I said was, “Can you guys hear that Group Leader needs more feedback from you guys, that even if all you have time to type is ‘Yeah, that sounds great,’ that that is what she’s looking for?” And they nodded and understood. They hadn’t realized that was what was needed.

And then I said to the group leader, “Can you hear that your group is a little overwhelmed by all the communication and structure you are throwing at them? That they may not have stepped into the level of volunteering that you are asking of them? Can you work to make more space for what they have time for, and to listen to their needs?”

And she understood that. It hadn’t really occurred to her that she was asking too much, given that for years she had taken on the entire task of putting on the event. I pointed out that she was a driven, motivated individual and this event was her baby, but just because she wanted it and was willing to put in the 80 hour week, didn’t mean that everyone else was, and that she had to downscale what she was expecting of her volunteers.

I also pointed out the obvious tension, that the group members were always on edge, waiting for the group leader to snap at them. That the group members wanted to help, but they were also afraid of how angry the group leader seemed to get. However, I also pointed out that some of the group members were not meeting the obligations they had agreed to, and that this had caused stress for the group leader.

Basically, as a neutral party, I was able to communicate a lot of the subtext messages in a way that took the tension out and helped them look at it not as the two sides in conflict, but as outsiders, so they could see how they got into the spaghetti snarl and how they could find their way out.

If you really want to learn how to mediate disputes, I highly recommend getting training in Nonviolent Communication. Restorative Justice Circles are another method, and many areas offer classes in mediation training, though the rub is you’ll have to pay out of pocket in order to get training that you then won’t be able to charge for. Don’t worry; I have a longer series of posts addressing leadership, fundraising, and money coming up.

When You Shouldn’t Bother
I’ll offer an example of many of the behaviors of a problematic individual who will cause repeated conflict in your group in Conflict Resolution Part 5.

Filed under: Leadership, Pagan Community, Personal Growth Tagged: clergy, communication, community, community building, impact, Leaders, leadership, Pagan community, Paganism, Personal growth, personal transformation, shadow work

Conflict Resolution 3: Is it Resolvable?

12653654_xxlWhen a conflict resolution works it’s a great thing. However, the reason I started out the leadership series by talking about unsolvable conflicts, and in specific, talking about intractably bad leaders who are egomaniacs, jerks, or who have major untreated mental illnesses…is because with anyone in these categories, it doesn’t matter if you are a master at conflict resolution. Nothing is going to heal that conflict. Nothing is going to change someone who isn’t aware and willing to change.

Love, Listening, and Boundaries
There is a power–an extreme power–in listening. In letting someone talk about why they are upset, in hearing them. Sometimes someone who seems like an intractably bad KnowItAll  can come to understand what they did and do, reflect on their behavior, and work to be better.

Some people have literally never had anyone just listen to them. Compassion and love and support can also heal some of those old wounds that lead to behavior. Another toolset that I’m less familiar with, but that I know has had a tremendous positive impact, is the form of the Restorative Justice circle.

Pagan author Crystal Blanton facilitates these when she teaches at festivals, and she uses them in her workplace. You might do a little digging around in your area via Google to see if there are any ways to experience or learn how to facilitate Restorative Justice circles. One of the hallmarks of an “RJ” circle is listening. The idea is to pass the  talking stick/stone/object around and get people to talk, and, to get people to listen.

There is a tremendous power in being heard when you’ve never felt like anyone listened to you or cared what you thought. Sometimes that’s all that someone wants in a conflict–to feel that their voice is heard.

There’s a tremendous power in hearing the pain of the other party. When people yell at each other over a computer screen, or through a third party who’s been triangled into the drama, they aren’t always hearing and sitting with and feeling compassion for what the other party is going through.

If you can actually get people to sit together and speak their pain and be vulnerable, that’s half the work right there, and sometimes just the act of them speaking and listening unravels the conflict.

However, it’s a knife’s edge of balance. I want to listen to what someone’s going through. And I want to give someone the time and space to heal and to do better, but I also need to understand when I’m spinning my wheels with someone and just giving them more opportunities to hurt me and my group. After repeated work with someone showing them compassion and giving them opportunities to make a different choice, sometimes it is time to hold a boundary. Sometimes, the answer is, “No, you can’t be a part of this group/event/community any longer.”

I do wish this historically worked better in the Pagan community. I’ve agreed numerous times to be a mediator for several disputes, and I’ve very, very rarely been taken up on the offer.

As I mentioned in Conflict Resolution Part 1, typically there’s one party interested in mediation, and the other party refuses. To recap, most of the time when someone refuses mediation, that’s a big red flag for me. If they aren’t willing to sit down at the table and talk things out, then there’s probably no resolving the conflict anyways.

The exception to this is if someone has been abused, for instance, and the abuser is trying to use mediation as a method to re-engage the cycle of abuse with their victim. If someone has been abused and refuses mediation because they have cut their abuser out of their life, that’s a different situation.

In almost any other case, the “I’m not speaking to you” tactic is unfortunately a death knell to the possibility of any future healing. No conversations can happen, no agreements can be made, no needs can be explored. At that point there is just stewing and no way to resolve the tension.

It festers like a big boil under the skin with no way to lance it.

Sometimes I have been taken up on my offer to mediate, but sometimes the end result isn’t what the parties had in mind. Sometimes the end result is, “Yup, you guys are really a terrible mix, personality wise, and you probably shouldn’t work together.” What people want is the perfect, pretty result, and that isn’t always possible. Sometimes the result is that some folks are just a bad combination, and the pressure cooker of working together to plan rituals or events or put out a newsletter is going to continually cause a conflict.

But I Heard Mediation Doesn’t Work
The only thing that’s worse than someone refusing mediation, though, is unskillful mediation. There’s a number of situations I’ve heard of where someone was used as a mediator who wasn’t at all skilled, or who was clearly biased, and that situation managed to cause a further rift. What makes this one worse is that then everyone sees that “Oh, mediation didn’t work,” and then they don’t want to employ mediation in the future.

Or, someone who didn’t like the outcome of the mediation, will talk about how mediation is biased. When, it wasn’t biased, it just didn’t go their way.

Like with many things, the story of bad mediations gets more elaborate with every telling. The game of “telephone” can create quite an epic rumor of how terrible mediations are. Not every regional community has had something like this happen, but in some regions, because of past drama, mediation is not even seen as an option.

Trash Talking the Mediator
A bad scenario is when one gets so upset that they begin to trash talk the mediator. And yes, this does happen. The idea of mediation is that the mediator is an outside party without a “dog in the game,” so to speak. In the Pagan community, I often clarify that I am not a true mediator, because we have too much “It’s a small world” syndrome, but that I will try to come in as unbiased as I can. And there’s a benefit to having a mediator who at least understands the local politics without an hours-long history lesson.

However, the disadvantage is that if one of the parties involved gets disgruntled enough–or, if they were genuinely unstable to begin with–they may try personal attacks against the mediator. At that point it usually becomes pretty clear how the original conflict exploded in the first place, but it can cause entirely new rifts. This is why I’ve heard a number of Pagan elders say, “No way am I getting in the middle of that.” Because, they know that one of the “end games” is to try and draw in the mediator.

Too Much of a Soft Touch
Another mediation failure is when the mediator doesn’t ask the hard questions. I know of one mediation where the mediator basically seemed to just listen to the two parties talk to each other.

One party felt aggrieved and took the lead, cowing the second person into apologizing, when the situation was actually far more complicated. The aggressive person used the mediator to make the second person look like the aggressor. It’s grade-A manipulative and abusive behavior, and a mediation is supposed to provide a safe space.

While it’s true that a mediator is in general supposed to help the parties in conflict solve their own problems, there’s also a point where a mediator needs to step in and ensure a safe space for both parties. I’d offer that it’s really tricky some times to suss out abusive and manipulative behavior, particularly with people who play the victim in other to manipulate others. This is why it’s important to gather data ahead of time from multiple different perspectives.

You want to give people space to work out their problems, but you don’t want to let one party steamroll the other. A lot of mediators express that they are afraid to be perceived as taking sides, but bad behavior needs to be called out in a mediation session or you’ve just lost all your safety agreements.

In Part 4, we’ll look at some actual mediation and arbitration processes.

Meanwhile, here’s a short article on projection (ie, projecting our inner landscape onto exterior people/events) from an excellent weekly facilitation newsletter I subscribe to.

Filed under: Leadership, Pagan Community, Personal Growth Tagged: clergy, communication, community, community building, impact, Leaders, leadership, Pagan community, Paganism, Personal growth, personal transformation, shadow work

Conflict Resolution 2: Understanding the Need Beneath the Action

4290805_lNonviolent Communication (or NVC), and other tools I work with, are about understanding the need that underlies the action. If I can understand why someone just did a really mean thing, I can understand why, and we have an opportunity to resolve it.

It’s still not okay to be a jerk to someone, but, without knowing why it happened and why, we can’t even get at a forward momentum for resolution, everything we do will just be rehash.

Nonviolent Communication is a technique that I frequently use. The book by the same name by Marshall Rosenberg is an excellent resource. The tool does have a bit of a learning curve, but it’s especially useful if many people in a local community are working to learn and practice it.

In the Conflict Resolution Part 1, I focused a lot on conflict avoidance. I have found that the simple strategy of “when, not if” helps tremendously. Not looking at it as, if a conflict happens, but when. That tends to lower the stress level around addressing the conflict, because I’m not looking at it from the squeamish perspective of, “Maybe I can get out of addressing this.” It’s more, “When will I choose to address this?”

Because that conflict is not going to go away. What you have to do first is understand the nature of the conflict to determine how to address it.

Person Causing the Drama
The person who’s frustrated and whose needs aren’t being met is likely to consistently keep beating their head against the wall engaging in ineffective strategies to try and meet those needs.

Effective strategies is a keyword here. A lot of the process of therapy is centered around trying to reprogram ourselves to stop engaging in ineffective strategies and harmful coping mechanisms, and move towards actual effective strategies to meet our needs.

But first, we have to understand what our needs are, and acknowledge them. And we have a lot of cultural shame around certain needs. For instance, the need for sex. I probably don’t need to go into the cultural shame around this. A more complicated need is the need to be unique, to be seen and valued, to be special. But we’re told as kids, “Children should be seen and not heard,” we’re told to not want the spotlight, to not be selfish like that. You can see where our genuine needs come into conflict with societal morals and shaming.

Digging Deep: What do we Need?
My mentor Cynthia Jones at Diana’s Grove came up with an astrological model of human needs based on the 12 signs of the zodiac. I took her work as presented in a workshop, and formatted it into a visual graphic. It’s not about “what’s your sign,” it’s that each of us has all 12 signs, all 12 needs, it’s just that we have them in different weights and measures. It’s a useful metaphor to understand different categories of human needs. And these needs are normal.

However, when we learn that a certain need is “bad,” that creates a shadow. We hate the part of ourselves that needs that. And so we hide it, we lock it away. So there’s that basic human need many of us have for sex and for pleasure. Basic human need, right? But how much shame do we have out of wanting pleasure? How many of us blush about talking about sex, or try to hide the fact that we masturbate?

Needing sex isn’t bad…it’s when we end up harming others out of our attempts to get that need met that it’s a problem. Like, lying about your life to pick someone up in a bar, or cheating on a partner, or seducing a student.

Compassion for Needs
Understanding people from the perspective of a whole constellation of needs that we each have becomes a useful tool in groups to identify where a behavior that’s harmful to the group was sourced by someone’s genuine human need.

An example is the woman I mentioned in the last conflict resolution blog post, the one who wanted to be seen as “The Writer.” She had a genuine human need to be seen and valued for work she did well. That wasn’t bad. What was bad was that her attempt to be seen and valued for that was expressed by her attacking me in meetings.

Understanding someone’s need–even if they were a jerk to me–gives me compassion for them. I can then actually work with them to find a better strategy to meet their need.

However, there’s also a point where someone hits what I call the three strikes rule. If someone continues to be a jerk, even if we’ve had a “this isnt’ working” conversation a few times, then I may need to cut my ties and stop working with them, or if they are participants in a group I’m leading, I may need to ask them to leave the group. Some people are beyond my pay grade. Some people are not able to be self reflective and see their behavior and how they are harming others. And others may see it, but be unable (at least at this time) to change that behavior.

I will, in almost instances, give someone the opportunity to shift their behavior. But if they don’t, then my compassion for them trying to meet their needs has a limit. Just because someone’s trying to meet a genuine need doesn’t mean it’s ok for them to harm me, or my group. Again, I have compassion for people who are frustrated trying to meet a need. But, if they are continuing to be a jerk, willfully so, that’s where I hold a boundary.

Realism in Conflicts
This is a bit of a bummer, but it’s really relevant. Not all wounds can be healed. What I mean is, there isn’t always a pat “Kumbaya” moment where the perpetrator of an abusive situation breaks down and realizes how wrong they were, and goes into therapy to change their life, and the people who were harmed smile and forgive them and it all works out.

Life isn’t that clean.

Worse, I think, are the moments when the perpetrator of an abuse breaks down and begs forgiveness, promises to change, and then people accept them back into their lives for another round of eventually declining behavior and future abuse until they end up in the same situation, or worse.

I’ve been the victim in that situation before. I’ve taken a repeat abuser back into my life. It’s really easy to do. Even with all the personal growth work that I’ve done, and the leadership work that I teach, it can be hard to discern if someone is going to actually change their behavior, or if they aren’t.

Self Transformation
I am an optimist, and at first, I will give everyone the benefit of the doubt, and I believe in people’s ability to change themselves, transform themselves. I have transformed myself, and I’ve witnessed others do the same. It’s a beautiful thing, and people are beautiful and deserving of second chances.

Some people are genuinely just going through a rough time in their lives. I know I’ve lashed out in some nasty ways when I was going through a terrible time, or when I was stuck in depression or being emotionally abused. I’ve seen a lot of people go through something and hit bottom and come back.

Alcoholics can get clean. A very good friend of mine was hurting me and others when he got addicted to hard drugs, and he quit and made something of his life.

However, some people aren’t going to change. Maybe it’s brain chemistry, maybe it’s a lifetime of them suffering their own abuses…whatever it is, in this lifetime, they aren’t going to change how they treat people. And you can’t fix them. Let me say it again. You cannot fix them.

When faced with someone like that, I do my due diligence. I give them every opportunity. But at a certain point, I recognize that that person isn’t going to change. They aren’t going to–at least for now–engage in a healthier strategy to meet their needs. And that my staying in any relationship with them–friends, romantic, group/professional, is not healthy for me. And at that point, the only thing I can do is cut them out of my life. In some cases, that means kicking someone out of a group.

I wish I had a magic wand to just “fix” people who are hurting themselves and others. But I don’t have that.

Hamsterwheeling: Trying to Make Sense of Illogical Behaviors
When I was in one particular abusive situation, I just about drove myself nuts trying to make logical sense out of his actions. Wanting him to make sense, wanting him to want healing, wanting to understand how he could do XYZ.

It wasn’t until talking to several psychotherapists that I understood that this particular individual has all the red flags for Borderline Personality Disorder. While they couldn’t diagnose him officially (he wasn’t their client), they explained the pattern of behavior, and further, explained that there wasn’t any “making sense” out of it. That my attempts to rationalize that behavior were fruitless, they were a hamsterwheel. They were me, and my rational mind, trying to make sense of someone’s actions that were not rational.

Without help–and, possibly even with help due to the nature of that mental illness–he was going to keep doing it, there was probably no changing the situation.

In some cases, healing isn’t possible. Sometimes all you can do is cut someone out of your life. And that sucks.

Needs and Resolving Conflict
Sometimes, however, getting to understand someone’s unmet needs is the way to resolve a conflict. However, each party involved in the conflict has to be honest about what they want. And has to be honest about their needs. And that usually requires looking in the mirror and admitting to things that–culturally–we’re taught to be embarrassed about.

Often what people want out of a conflict resolution is for the other person to apologize and vindicate them, prove them to be “right.” If that’s what you want, you have to own that. But, you also need to look deeper at the needs beneath that. Why do you need that? What needs aren’t you getting met?

Often the “need to be right” all the time that is present in people who are KnowItAlls is, deep down, a need to be loved and valued by others because they themselves have very poor self esteem and a poor self image. I know a lot about this one–I used to be very guilty of it. Somehow I equated “being right” with “being good” with “I have value.” Later, I learned that being a KnowItAll was contributing to my status as a social outcast. Amazingly, once I stopped being such a KnowItAll, I had more friends, and my self esteem improved.

This is where the idea of conflict resolution connects to a process of therapy, or at least ,relentless personal growth work. If your behavior in a relationship or group is causing a conflict, you have to look at the needs you are trying to get met and the unhealthy, ineffective strategies that you are employing to meet that need.

First you have to acknowledge you have a need. Next, you need to acknowledge that you’re engaging in a harmful strategy to meet that need.

Maybe you’re being the KnowItAll and you are interrupting meetings to point out how someone else is wrong, or argue over minutia, or even interrupting someone else’s workshop. Maybe you dominate a conversation with the stuff that you know, even if others weren’t talking about your topics of interest and expertise.

Then, you need to actually commit to changing that behavior. A group leader can help you find a way to meet that need in a better way–perhaps establishing you as the person who will write an article on the sabbats, or on myths, or some other area of interest. I’ve worked with people in my groups before, including working out some hand signals or other communication to let them know when they were acting out again in a subtle way that wouldn’t shame them in front of the group.

Needs, Therapy, and Successful Strategies
A process of therapy is often very useful in continuing to explore the unsuccessful strategies you use to meet your needs, and work to establish healthier, successful strategies. Our own Ego–our self identity–is the biggest block in this process. Ego’s job is to make you look good, to make sure you like yourself. So we don’t want to identify ourselves as someone who is “bad.” That might look like, “I’m bad if I’m a KnowItAll.” (Trust me, I’ve been there on that one.)

So we have to circumvent our ego, our identity, and acknowledge, hey, I do this thing, because I’m trying to be seen and valued, and I’m not bad, I’m just going about it in a crappy way, and I can change that behavior.

However–life’s not that clean. the strategies I’m discussing above are tremendously useful for conflict resolution if people actually do them. If people are actually self reflective enough to look at their behaviors and acknowledge that they need to make a change. Most of the time, people engaging in these behaviors will rigorously dig in their heels. They will not admit to being wrong.

Because, being “wrong” is being “bad” and ego can’t take being seen as “bad.” In fact, most egomaniacal and arrogant behavior is typically covering over really, really poor self esteem. If you want a magical exercise to work on this in yourself, I suggest the Iron Pentacle exercised, particularly working with the Rusted and Gilded pentacles. I believe you can do some of this work in T. Thorn Coyle’s Evolutionary Witchcraft book, but there are also various resources for it if you Google it. If you have the opportunity to take an Iron Pentacle class, even better.

Ego, Egotism, and Conflict Resolution
Ego isn’t bad. Ego is just our identity. It’s just that our ego can be a little overzealous in its job.

For a conflict resolution to work, all parties need to understand their own needs and desires. They need to be honest about them. And, all parties need to be willing to explore their own egos, and egotism, and need to be right, and fear of being “bad.”

Again, it’s been my experience that people who are engaging in some of the most unsuccessful–and harmful–coping strategies to get their needs met, are also the folks who have the poorest self-esteem. And thus in response, they have the most overzealous and protective egoes, and that manifests in egotism and arrogance.

Those are the folks least likely to come to the mediation table, and the least likely to back down even when they are clearly in the wrong.

So, do the work to understand your own needs, and the needs of those in your group. Understand the needs beneath the conflict. Try to actually be able to articulate the needs, and the unsuccessful strategies that are harming the group. And if someone isn’t willing to hear it, be prepared to cut ties.

And keep in mind, if you’re going into a conflict resolution because you are dead set on wanting to be “right,” you probably need to do a bit of work on your own shadows around your needs, your identity, your self esteem. If each of us did this rigorous personal work, we would have far healthier groups, and less conflicts.

Stay tuned! Conflict Resolution 3 will come out tomorrow.

Filed under: Leadership, Pagan Community Tagged: clergy, communication, community, community building, impact, Leaders, leadership, Pagan community, Paganism, Personal growth, personal transformation, shadow work

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 *

*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

Filed under: Leadership, Pagan Community, Personal Growth Tagged: clergy, communication, community, community building, impact, Leaders, leadership, Paganism, pagans, Personal growth, shadow work, sustainability

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.

Filed under: Leadership, Pagan Community Tagged: clergy, communication, community, community building, group dynamics, impact, Leaders, leadership, Pagan community, Paganism, pagans, Personal growth, personal transformation

Pagan Leadership and Witch Wars

5169119_xxlIt’s not a Witch War. Let’s get that out of the way. In fact, let’s get rid of that term completely, because it aggrandizes conflict and makes it sound magical, powerful, cool. What is a witch war? It’s a fancy-schmancy word for an interpersonal conflict.

Why do we need the cool word for it? Well…put bluntly, and making a lot of assumptions, I’m going to stick my neck out and say that many Pagans out there have poor self esteem. Heck, a lot of people have poor self confidence.

Drama is a coping mechanism to feel better about yourself. Think about this; if you have another Witch who is gunning for you, hexing you, psychically attacking you…that must make you pretty important, huh? 

Let’s face it. Drama is exciting. Humans like drama and we like story. Otherwise novels would be pretty boring, as would movies. They’d be about a character who makes some toast, and then watches tv, and then goes to sleep without facing any conflict. There’s a reason that movies and books sell well. There’s a reason why people have been telling stories about warriors and battles since language began. We like stories. Drama and conflict are a part of stories.

However, many people gravitate toward drama in their lives. They often stir it up, even though they aren’t consciously aware that they’re doing it.

What I’ve noticed is that the people who seem to stir up the most drama in their lives often have a certain measure of self loathing. They may hate their own lives; unhappy in their relationship, their job, their family…the list could go on. Drama is a pretty exciting distraction from the parts of your life that you’re not happy with. And again, if you have a nemesis, that’s at least a relief from your own life’s worries. It can be pretty exciting.

I’m certainly not writing this from the arm chair. I’ve been that person. Heck, I write fantasy novels, and dramatic conflicts of my past (realistic or imagined) inspired some of my epic fantasy stories.

I’ve worked with a lot of Pagans, enough to see this pattern happen pretty commonly. And being in a “witch war” is way more exciting than saying, “I’m entangled in a no-win situation with a coven leader.”

Competing for Market Share
I hate to say it, but this is a core part of many witch wars. Sometimes it’s fairly obvious; I know a number of cities, like Salem, where there are big public conflagrations between store owners, because the drama brings in business. But more than that, by discrediting the “other guy,” your store and services look better and you make more money.

Usually it’s a bit more altruistic. Or, rather, seems more altruistic, but it’s the same model.

Let’s say you’ve just started up a new group. You aren’t interested in forming a coven, you just want a networking thing at a local coffee house to meet up with other Pagans. There are a few covens in your area, but nothing like that.

Much to your surprise, a bunch of folks show up, and over the course of a few months, you form a group. Things are going well. Until…

Another local coven leader starts grilling you about what you are doing. Over the next months, you discover that they are badmouthing you around town. You go to a local Pagan bookstore to propose a fundraiser there, and they give you a weird look. You finally start to figure out what’s been happening.

Why is this leader doing this?

Many times, it boils down to this; you are stepping on their toes. You are doing something that perhaps they wanted to do. People are going to your group. The other leader worries that your group will be more successful than theirs. This isn’t about money–this is about attention. It’s also about boundaries, vision, and ego.

Ego Annex
I’ve explained this concept in my boundaries articles, but basically, any visionary who starts a group, reaches for a dream…we get attached to that vision, to that dream, to that thing we created. Maybe it’s a group, maybe it’s an annual event. Maybe it’s an art project. We get attached to it like it is a part of ourselves–because it is. And when that thing is threatened, when we fear that something else will take people’s attention away from that thing, we get angry, just as if someone insulted us personally.

So it’s egotism from a somewhat altruistic place.

A leader like this genuinely feels they are protecting their group and the work they are doing. But the truth is, when a leader works to undermine another group in order to protect their baby, their event, their group, their project…it’s usually a red flag for some serious issues with self esteem or with personal boundaries.

Boundaries meaning, there is a separation between you and me. And, the group I run is not actually me. A subset of me, sure, but it’s not actually me. I understand this from the inside; I’ve gotten way defensive about other groups scheduling an event at the same time as mine, for instance. However, I had the skills and tools to take a breath and realize one important thing.

It’s not about me. They aren’t personally attacking me.

They just scheduled their event over mine because they didn’t know. I can’t get mad at them for that, I can be mad at the situation, and work to establish better communication with that other group.

However–getting back to these community disputes that we won’t call witch wars, that’s a tactic that many unstable, egotistical leaders will put into play. To undermine another group, these leaders will badmouth them. They will schedule events at the same time to make the community “choose” which event to attend.

Whether the conflict is about who is bringing in donation money, who has the more popular group, who is stepping on toes, or even an actual interpersonal dispute…what it is not is magical, neat, or cool.

Dating in Groups
Let’s play “it’s a small world.” Person A and Person B are in a coven together and they are dating. Let’s hope that neither one is a coven leader. Person B completely loses it. Maybe they are a really angry person. Maybe they are Bipolar and went off their meds. Whatever the reason, A and B break up and Person B just goes bananas, disrupts coven meetings, the whole thing. The coven leader asks person B to leave the group.

Now–some of you advanced players in this particular dance know one of the next moves. What does Person B do next? Yes! Form their own coven, of course!

As you can imagine, this isn’t going to be a group that is based up on a strong core skill set of leadership, or even a grounding in any particular tradition. Nor is this going to be one of our more stable leaders. However, this person–whether we like it or not–is out there recruiting people for their group.

So, one strategy is telling people around town that she’s unstable and her group will be bad. However, then you get a rep as a gossip monger and for having sour grapes. You can also just ignore them, which works until they start spreading rumors about you and your group.

The other thing that happens perhaps more frequently is that Person B bails on your group and joins another coven in the area, and badmouths you to those people, and they take Person B’s side. Then that coven begins to undermine yours by badmouthing you around town.

Calling it a witch war perhaps  is the balm to ease the frustrating truth. There’s no good way out of that conflict. There’s no clean resolution for it.

What To Do with Bad Leaders?
With the examples above, there isn’t really a way to oust a bad leader. You can try to go and talk to them, but making the assumption that this person is not stable (and I have some forthcoming article on this process via conflict resolution)…let’s make the assumption that no conflict resolution process has worked.

What do you do?

The only thing that most leaders can even do in that instance is shunning, just ignoring the bad leader and not engaging with them.

Most leaders who are acting poorly don’t see it about themselves. And there’s a dozen reasons for that, but I think most of them center around wounds of the ego. Leaders harming their community cannot see their bad behavior, they cannot accept that they are “bad.” Ego doesn’t cope with it well. ”It’s not me, nothing’s wrong with me.”

And if they can’t recognize that their egotism is causing community rifts–or, if they don’t care–what do we do with them? What do we do with those people, other than try to ignore them?

They will still keep leading groups, finding newbies…they will still undermine the other leaders out there…they will continue to cause problems.

Accountability and the Catch-22
When you’re dealing with leaders who are jerks, or unstable, the rub is–in order to speak out against them, you have to cause the drama you were trying so desperately to avoid. Some of the so-called “witch wars” are attempts to hold leaders accountable that created inter-community disputes that leave rifts for years.

Most people I know were raised to be non-confrontational, to be passive aggressive. When someone is more aggressive and blunt, it’s really obvious, and it’s usually (not always) someone who held their tongue before and finally blew up.

A lot of Pagan leaders have learned to sweep the bad stuff under the rug because they are afraid of starting a witch war. In fact, whistle-blowers who call bad leaders on their stuff often get blamed and shamed.

I often tell people is, the truth will almost always eventually out. It did for me. But, don’t speak out against someone like that unless you’re prepared to burn in the court of public opinion. Really ready.

And know that there are going to be conflict avoidant people who are going to beg you, who are going to demand, that you stop tearing down XYZ leader. They are going to talk about how they have trauma from all the community conflict. And they are going to bully you into not speaking out against the abuser.

Most community leaders with any compassion are going to cave, they’re going to back down from calling another local leader on the carpet for behaving badly.

We have no authority over other leaders. All we can do is speak out…except in our conflict-avoidant community, the person who blows the whistle often becomes the “antagonist,” the bad guy. And the unstable leader who caused the original problem and is being spoken out against, gets to play the victim card.

Let me tell you–it’s a mess of spaghetti. It’s really difficult to tell who’s “right” in a conflict like this once it gets tangled.

What Do I Recommend for Leaders Dealing With a Bad Situation?
I want us to have healthy groups, and healthy institutions. I want those institutions to not be institutions that betray our values. And for me, part of that is that we (Pagans) need to figure out better methods of learning how to build institutions and groups, how to be better leaders (and group members, or be leaderful group members), and how to hold each other accountable without it being a “witch war” of he said/she said.

I hate it that sometimes the best advice I can give someone is, “Keep doing what you are doing, accept that you will need to downsize your efforts, and just ignore that unstable leader.” And then, hope they disappear, otherwise, you have to wait for them to retire or die.

But in all likelihood, the really stubborn unstable leaders won’t quit.

Is There a Solution?
I’m an optimist with a broken heart. With the people who step into Pagan leadership, there is no assumption of competence, maturity, and stability. I wish I could lean on spirituality here, and ask for people to be moved by Spirit, or hold faith in the idea of Karma, or that people will eventually be accountable to Spirit.

However, I’ve seen many leaders, Pagan and not, who are absolutely convinced they are doing the “right” thing. I’ve seen Pagan leaders convinced (or at least, doing lip service) to the idea that “God/Goddess/Spirit” told them so.

There’s a saying I’ve heard in a number of fiction writing workshops, that a good villain/antagonist is actually the hero of their own journey, just a hero that made different choices than the protagonist. I use that a lot in the personal growth work that I teach; we’re all the hero of our own journey, and in the course of that journey we sometimes might trample others in the quest for our individuality, our personal sovereignty.

We aren’t necessarily trying to, but it happens. I think the mark of a mature leader is trying to do less of that trampling, but that requires self awareness. That requires self reflection.

Self Transformation
The leaders who cause the most problems are not self aware. They are not stable. These are folks who are not seeing their impact. Some, with personal reflection, will be able to. Many won’t. Maybe they have untreated mental illness. Maybe they are just egomaniacs. What I see over and over is, they aren’t going to change how they act any more than any abuser in a relationship is likely to change.

No. you cannot “fix” them.

And that’s the category of leader that I just don’t know what to do with. You can’t “make” them get help. You can’t “make” them stop leading. If they’re doing something illegal, you can try to get them arrested for it, but that’s not usually the case. Going postal on another leader who steps on their toes (ie, starts a new group in “their” region isn’t illegal, it’s just destructive.

Waiting for these leaders to die and go away is not a solution. Ignoring them and suffering their abuse is not a solution either.

Ending the Wars
However, Paganism has no central gatekeepers. Or at least, gatekeepers are fairly rare. If you went to a UU seminary, one of your teachers might say, “ou really aren’t suited to this work, come back to seminary after 5 years of therapy.” We don’t have that, and won’t.

Yet, we can do better. We must do better. I’m just not sure how.

One strategy is, stop playing the game. Witch Wars is a game. It’s a distraction, and it’s a conceit. And it’s a no-win scenario.

I think the best strategy is to do relentless personal work. To train the stable leaders and community members in leadership skills so they can at least cope with this crap when it crops up.

Harvest a new generation of ethical leaders and teach them how to do it well. And, over the next generation, look at ways that we can actually collectively work together to get past “he said/she said” into true conflict resolution.

The series continues! There will be another Pagan leadership in a few days.

Filed under: Leadership, Pagan Community Tagged: communication, community, group dynamics, Leaders, leadership, Pagan community, Paganism, Personal growth, personal transformation, sustainability, transformation

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.

Filed under: Leadership, Pagan Community Tagged: communication, community, community building, group dynamics, impact, Leaders, leadership, Pagan community, Paganism, Personal growth, personal transformation, shadow work, sustainability, transformation