A Personal Inventory for Leaders

While I've never personally been involved in a so-called "12 Step" program of recovery, I've always felt that there are valuable life lessons to be found within the steps. For leaders of groups like ADF Groves and Protogroves, the fourth step can be extremely valuable to undertake:

"We have made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves."

Notice that there is no counsel to catalog the moral failings of others. Notice, too, that there is no limitation to listing only one's moral shortcomings and ignoring one's strengths. But the exercise of examining one's own accountability for the situation one finds oneself in can be tremendously important for a leader, especially when faced with the difficult task of considering disciplinary action against a member.

One of the biggest factors in contributing to conflict within a Grove...and, in my experience, most generally neglected...is the leader's own contributions to the antagonistic behavior. The majority of the time, antagonists are antagonists and are going to disrupt any group they are in. However, sometimes, unfortunately, defensiveness or just simple misplaced pride on the part of a leader can create frustration and division. A good leader—in my opinion and in my experience—needs to do the very difficult work of first asking him or herself (and other trusted members, if possible) what she or he might be contributing to the situation.

It can be very easy to decide, especially in a small group, that you have an irrational malcontent on your hands...because...see?...no one else is complaining...when what you actually have is one candid person and five people who also have issues with your leadership style but don't want to hurt your feelings (because your founded the group/do most of the work/contribute so much money/etc./etc.). The unreflective leader will not be capable of distinguishing between a malcontent and a passionate critic who may actually be making points that need to be heard.

None of that is hypothetical: I've seen it in action, including in ADF. And why shouldn't it happen? Particularly because ADF does not offer systematic training to prospective leaders, it is very important that Grove or Protogrove leaders take real responsibility to check in with themselves—in a fearless and truly searching manner—as well as with other members and be willing to take constructive criticism in an open and non-defensive manner. That is often very difficult for the sorts of individuals drawn to leadership...it takes a lot of self-discipline and generally an ability to suppress exactly the sort of confident ego a leader needs to have.

The following are some suggestions drawn from personal experience of some things leaders might check in with themselves from time-to-time, especially before passing judgment on a "disruptive member":

  1. What purpose does leadership serve in my life? What do I think "leadership" means generally? Have I thought about that? Why did I found the group (or seek my office)? Do I crave attention? Do I strive to put the needs of the group (as I see them and as expressed in founding documents) ahead of my needs when I feel like they are in conflict? Do I feel I'm in the office because no one else would take it on? Do I feel "miscast" in the office at all?
  2. What skills do I feel I bring to leadership? What makes me consider myself a leader? If asked...say in an interview with the media...what evidence from education or professional experience would I cite to document those skills? What skills do I feel I lack? What have I done to work on acquiring those lacking skills? Have I asked any trusted members for honest, uncensored, feedback on my leadership abilities and style? Do I feel anyone can be a leader? If so, what has led me to think that?
  3. How do I lead? How do I recognize when consensus is forming? Am I capable of forging compromise? Do I enjoy forging compromise? Do I dictate? Do I vacillate? Do I pontificate? Do I have a hard time keeping a meeting orderly? Do I feel like meetings become too high-spirited and I can't be heard? Do meetings run longer than I'd like them to? Do I provide an agenda for meetings? Do I follow an agenda for meetings? Am I reluctant to say, "We need to move on"? If some members don't want to move on in a meeting, how do I handle that (or imagine I would handle that)? Do events begin on time? How do I provide notice of events? Has anyone ever complained that s/he wasn't informed of something?
  4. If my group isn't growing at all, what reasons might there be? Have we settled into being a clique that doesn't welcome newcomers well? If I hug members in a public setting, does that extend to only some members? Do I identify a member in the group as my "best friend" to others? Do I play favorites? Do I make equal time for all who approach me about membership or at least have a system so that all who approach can be directed to the same member or group of members for answers?
  5. Do I make an effort to identify potential problem individuals before they enter membership? What do I do when I encounter a person who makes me ill at ease who wants membership? Does the group have any filters in place? Can I get along with people whose personality or lifestyle choices make me uncomfortable? How do I tend to deal with those sorts of individuals in social settings? Do I do the same things in the Grove/Protogrove? Should I do the same things in the Grove/Protogrove?
  6. If my group is growing rapidly, do I have a plan for responding to growth? What are the core principles I expect all members to affirm? When was the last time I actually explained them to someone? How do I articulate those to all newcomers? (Do I articulate them to all newcomers?) Is there a fair and objective system in place for newcomers to advance in rank...if there is rank in the group? If there isn't a formal advancement or training system, on what basis do I decide whom I ask for advice and whom I don't among the members? Do I just work with elected officers of the group or is there an informal "inner circle"? If challenged by a member saying the group had an "inner circle" or "ruling faction" that seemed closed to newcomers, how would I respond?
  7. How are decisions made in the group? How many decisions have I made in the last month without asking for consent from any other officer or member? The last year? If asked how the decision-making process was arrived at, what source would I identify? Another group's bylaws? Intuition? Formal leadership training? Experience in another group? If experience in another group: Why do I believe that group's structure or culture lines up with the culture and needs of my current group? Am I trying to force the other members into a mold into which they don't really fit? Am I honestly following the example(s) of a role model in building structure for the group or am I trying to be someone I'm not?
  8. Do I criticize others publicly? To what ends have I criticized others in the group publicly? Have I been criticized publicly? How did that feel? Was I able to experience hurt feelings without rejecting the content of the criticism out-of-hand? Have I ever said to a fellow member, "Thank you, I didn't know I was doing that"? Have I ever shouted at a fellow member? Was I embarrassed afterwards? Did I apologize? Or do I still feel it was justified? Do I feel they owed me an apology for prompting my anger?
  9. Do I feel unappreciated? If so, why? Who have I spoken to about that feeling? Do I feel I'm getting more criticism as a leader than I thought I would when I founded the group/accepted the office?
  10. Do I delegate enough work? Am I playing martyr by hanging onto enough work for the group that I can always appear overworked? Do I ever justify failing to follow through on a promise to the group or meet a deadline by saying "I had too many other things on my plate?" Was I being sincere if I said that? Why do I allow myself to have so much on my plate that things aren't done as well as I might like? As others might like?
  11. Am I planning for the future? Do other members have a sense of what those plans might be? Do I engage in active long-range planning with the membership? If I were to be hit by a bus tomorrow, would the group survive? Do I have information that would be lost if I left the group?
  12. Whom do I think the group serves? The members? A larger community? Both? How does my group define membership? Where exactly is that definition to be found?
  13. If someone who belongs to a minority subset of the group asks for accommodation for his/her practices or interests, how do I respond (or imagine I would respond)?
  14. How much does my group communicate by e-mail? How many of the interpersonal conflicts I see within the group originated in e-mail communication? Do I use e-mail as a substitute for face-to-face communication? Have I educated myself as to the shortcomings of e-mail? Am I facilitating as much face-to-face interaction as possible? Have I ever disciplined or reprimanded a member by e-mail? Have I done so on a list? Am I more comfortable...do I feel more articulate...in e-mail than face-to-face communication? Why?
  15. Do I ever feel intimidated when other members come up with ideas I wish I'd thought of? Do I ever nitpick those ideas? Have I ever rejected another's idea out-of-hand without explanation? Do I consider myself an "alpha" type? If so, how do I react when another "alpha" comes into the group (or any other setting where I'm in leadership)? Do I make conscious efforts to find productive roles for other assertive and/or creative personalities in the group? Do I ever marginalize such individuals? Has anyone ever told me they'd like more to do in the group? How did I respond?

I've had to ask myself virtually all of the above questions during my tenure as first Grove Organizer and then Senior Druid. Many of them I have had to ask repeatedly. Maybe we've been lucky, but in almost five years of existence and with well over fifty people having come through Grove membership during that time, we've had exactly one serious confrontation and have never had to discipline anyone (apart from one formal warning). I don't believe that is an accident—and I can honestly say I've seen us avoid problems other groups have fallen into through hard work and ongoing planning.

I believe that some Protogroves in smaller communities have a higher likelihood of encountering disruptive members because there may be a limited number of visible Pagan groups in the area and it is a truism that Paganism has an attraction for marginalized personalities. (This is what I call the lure of the "archetype of the empowered outsider" and it is endemic...and can be both valuable and toxic...in Neopaganism.) Also there is a greater likelihood of needing to accommodate to various interests in the group (cultural or otherwise) in places where Pagans are thin on the ground. But I've seen groups in major metropolitan areas with plenty of choices of paths run into problems with disgruntled members, so I think it's important to resist the temptation to say that it is a given that we will be beset with antagonists for particular reasons...and, more importantly, in my opinion, to assume too readily the way to deal with antagonists is automatically to show them the door.

It is critically important to do very serious self-reflection...and often reflection within the "core" membership of the group...before asking someone to leave what they have identified as their spiritual fellowship. Once you are clear about your own contributions to a conflict, if you still feel someone needs to be asked to leave, it is a much healthier place to be and you will have more resolve to carry through on the action. A leader should never be afraid to confront a truly disruptive individual who threatens the well being of the group and coming from a place of clarity as to one's own place in the conflict is an important step in facilitating this.

Author Information

Todd Covert

Articles by Todd Covert

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