I am sharing this article with you in honor of the Capricorn Full Moon, which my astrological friends are telling me is, in combination with other aspects, really bringing up issues of power dynamics. This piece was originally published in the Pagan Leadership Anthology in 2016, written in 2014.
The bigger they are, the harder they fall: or, how to avoid the pedestal
We are starved for good leadership. We seek individuals that are willing and able to lead, who are wise and knowledgeable, ethical, and passionate. Humans are social pack animals, and while we may not want to admit it, we look to our pack leaders to help guide us. Unfortunately, the model of leadership in our patriarchal, one-upmanship society has left us with many poor role models and a skewed vision of what good leadership really means.
So, when we encounter an individual who really seems to “get it,” who leads by example and cares about their community, people start to flock to them. I call it the moth to the porch light effect; there is a bright light shining and we can’t help but to be drawn to it. The people that are drawn to this bright light are “moths,” beautiful individuals that perhaps haven’t been appreciated or realized their beauty yet. This person, “the porch light” may or may not be willing or ready to take on the mantle of community leadership, but suddenly find themselves surrounded by individuals with a deep and crying need. This person, being who they are, has a difficult situation but an easy choice to make. When the Goddesses call, and the community cries out, you must answer.
This is when the pedestal begins to be built. Inevitably that pedestal must tumble, but in this phenomenon it is not due to any intentionally negligent actions of the leader. It is a pitfall I have seen many times, particularly in women’s groups. Women particularly have been socialized to accept power over them. We have come to expect it. We will hand our power to someone else and not even realize that we have done it. Yet we also have a deeper, instinctual knowledge that tells us that no one can or should have power over us.
When women start to awaken to the power that they inherently hold within themselves, they are suddenly thrust into a cognitive dissonance, recognizing the mixed messages they have been receiving from the outside world and their inner knowing their entire lives. This process is often catalyzed by a solid leader and guide. This leader, the person that they have trusted and often given some authority to, is now perceived as one of the people who have held power over her. They must be taken down.
This is usually not a conscious process. The “moths” have no real understanding of what they are going through, and need a place to release the rage and backlash from a lifetime of power and control. The leader (provided they are healthy) has not asked for nor taken any power from anyone they are leading. But they suddenly find themselves at the center of a coup.
Unfortunately, sometimes this process cannot be stopped. It is a part of the awakening of the people involved. It is healthy as long as they are guided through it and have enough self-awareness to recognize what is happening. So, it is extremely important for a leader to understand this phenomenon and do what they can to reduce the backlash and more gently and safely awaken people to the power they hold within.
Many of the ways to prevent the pedestal are, in essence, just good leadership skills. Honesty, humility, and accountability are all necessary traits for a spiritual leader. Here we will apply them to deeper discussions around power and control to create a model of leadership that, while perhaps not fully shared leadership, will resist the building of a top-down structure.
Forms of Power
There is nothing inherently wrong with power. We all possess it, but it is the wielding of it that can be harmful or beneficial. Reminding each other of the power that we possess, or what is referred to as empowering others, is essential to reclaiming our power and revisioning the world. Leaders are in a position to do this but it is important to remember that every form of power has its positive and negative side, its potential for benefit and its potential for harm. There are three types of power in groups, which have been written about thoroughly by Starhawk and the Reclaiming collective.
Power-over: This is the power structure we are most familiar with and in which we have all been indoctrinated. Power-over is essentially the power to make decisions and mete out punishment. When power-over is utilized in a corrupt system, as our society is structured, it becomes a way to subordinate and oppress the majority while the minority benefit from decision-making power that enables them to maintain control. In small groups, power-over looks like one individual with all of the decision-making power and none of the accountability, while the other group members are forced to abide by the decisions without the opportunity for input or feedback. When balanced by responsibility and mediated with input from people that decisions affect and accountability for those decisions, power-over may have a valid role. But we are all so deeply indoctrinated into the corrupt use of power-over that achieving this can be challenging in groups.
Power-with: This is a shared power structure. Power-with is the ability to influence, from a place of equality and shared respect among all group members. Power-with is the moment when one person claims power and suggests a decision or an action to a group of people who are all considered equals and each have the potential to claim that power in any moment. The group has the option to follow the suggestion or not. It often happens organically and in inspired moments. Power-with takes a turn to the harmful wielding of power when it turns into one person who frequently has the “best ideas” being followed without input or question, or one “elder” or other person of respect who is allowed to take action without accountability; both lead to one person holding authority over all others. Power-with can also be flipped, so that people who do not know how to access their inherent power will try to exert influence and authority over the group instead.
Power-from-within: This is the power that is inherent to us as beings. Power-from-within is the ability to see the value and resulting power of all things, and see the connections between one individual and the whole web of nature. Power-from-within is not competitive or influential, it does not oppress or exalt, it simply is and it sees the world for what it is – a system of interlocking connections. Power-from-within is the power you access when doing magic or ritual, when accessing the mystery, or when writing poetry or creating symbols. As such it can also be seen as the creative force. Recognizing the power within all beings is essential to being able to wield power to effect change, which is the purpose of power-with and power-over. When people don’t recognize their own power, they will try to take the power of others which puts leaders at risk.
Have discussions about power and control
An important part of leading groups, especially women’s groups, is to have an understanding about oppression, abuse, power, and control. We live in a patriarchal society and each of us has been brought up in a culture that values power and authority and demeans women and the egalitarian. We learn that the only way to be successful is to come out on top, and the only way to come out on top is to step on the backs of others on the way. This creates competition which perpetuates oppression.
Indeed, our societal structure depends upon classes of people remaining oppressed. We are all indoctrinated into this system, and unconsciously internalize the oppression. For some, this manifests as a greater desire for power so that they can feel a sense of control over their own lives. We use the tools that have been given to us through internalized oppression to perpetuate the system because it is the only thing we know.
In our groups, we have the opportunity to break this cycle. In every group I start I include a discussion about patriarchy, oppression and privilege, and power and control. We work together to unpack our experiences living in a patriarchal society. In a women’s group this can begin with the women taking stock of the ways they feel discriminated against and objectified. Discrimination in the workplace, media images, and feelings of safety can be explored. In all groups, relationships with friends, family, and co-workers can be explored to discuss if the individual feels they hold the power in one relationship and feel subordinate in another, and how those dynamics play out.
To look at the bigger picture you can also explore how the need for control and superiority affects our interactions with the environment. If group members have a difficult time exploring personal relationships, their connection with the Earth may help them reveal how they try to maintain control in their lives and their resulting abuse of the environment. Questions about how they try to tame their lawns and gardens, the health of the water around them, and how they see wildlife, can all unveil internalized oppression and the drive for control.
You can then go into leadership styles and discuss alternatives. Consensus-building and shared leadership can be explored. At this stage it is appropriate to decide how the group will be organized, who will be the primary decision-maker, and how tasks will be shared, but it is important for everyone to remember that this can and likely will shift as the group changes.
Be honest about your personal life, challenges, and weaknesses. Set boundaries.
We’ve all heard it – no one is perfect. To try to maintain a façade that you are is to lie to yourself and everyone around you. Honesty is a paramount trait in a leader. You must be able to be honest with yourself before you try to lead others. This doesn’t mean you have to make everything in your life align with some ultimate spiritual ideal. On the contrary, showing your humanity to others is the greatest model you can be.
I have sat in groups and felt like I couldn’t share anything personal because I was the leader and couldn’t be seen as weak or troubled. How would anyone trust me to lead them if they knew I was having trouble at home, or was struggling in my own spiritual practice, or felt completely inadequate in leading? So I would listen and support the other women in the group, nodding or offering advice when asked, but I would never truly open up to them.
I now know this is a huge disservice to them and me. It made me appear to have transcended personal challenges; to be someone enlightened with wisdom and without struggles. This only served to build the pedestal higher and secretly bred resentment that fed the dissonance in the mind of the group members and hastened the fall. None of this was intentional. I wasn’t trying to look like I had ‘risen above’ the struggles of life; I was trapped in thinking I couldn’t share these things and still be respected – it was the internalized sense of what holding power means and the fear of showing weakness in the competitiveness model. The women in the group weren’t asking me to be an ‘enlightened savior’; they were just eager to have someone actively listen to their problems and support them in their struggles.
Whether you are leading a small ritual group or are a public figure in your community, remaining open and honest about your humanity will be inspiring to others. Of course, you are your own authority in your life and you should use your own discretion and intuition when deciding what to share, when, and with whom. Balancing over and under sharing can be difficult. And of course, only share as much as you can safely share.
Setting boundaries from the beginning will help to avoid any confusion and group members later feeling like you weren’t really there for them. Let the group know how much time you have to devote to group activities, when you are not available, and what kinds of things you are willing to do. Also be clear about what you expect in return, whether it is financial compensation or a certain level of engagement. This goes hand in hand with being honest about your life and your own struggles, so that no one has false expectations.
Leadership is as much about teaching leadership skills to others as it is leading. Shared leadership means not only sharing the power and responsibility of leadership, but empowering those who would like to lead. In a spiritual group, your ultimate goal should be to lead others to their own skills and wisdom within. “Empowerment” has become a bit of a buzzword, and as such much of its true meaning has been hard to define. The classic definition is to “give” someone power or “make” them exercise their power and authority.
Neither of these definitions includes the concept that individuals inherently have power; we cannot give power to them and making them exercise it places power over them.
So what does empowering others actually look like? To continue with the metaphor of the porch light, it is to guide others to their home, their sense of place and power within. It is to help them recognize the power they inherently hold. Recognizing systemic and internalized oppression is the first step to remembering the power that each person holds. Enabling others to express their emotions, their anger and fear through allowing the space for the process is essential. This process can be difficult and fraught with challenges that a leader-guide must be prepared for. The scope of those challenges goes beyond this article, but there are many resources available for clergy and lay counselors that have useful tools and techniques.
Once the dam is removed and the stymie of emotions has been released, a leader must be diligent in working with the individual to help them remember their power and allow the space for them to exercise it. If they have often turned to you to help them make decisions, now is the time to give that decision-making responsibility back to them. When counseling them, encourage them to ask themselves what they feel they should do, holding the space for them to tap into their own intuition. Reflect their feelings back to them and ask open-ended questions.
If you have been primarily responsible for coordinating events and conducting ritual, you should consider giving some of that responsibility to the group. In the case of teaching circles, every few weeks following teaching and practicing a certain skill, I set aside a meeting to encourage the group members to share their own insights into the practice and help teach each other. Another easy way to work this concept in is to designate the Sabbats, if you celebrate them, as group rituals in which everyone takes a piece and works together to develop the ritual. As the group continues to work together, begin sharing more ritual work with the rest of the group, until eventually rituals are being rotated or collaborated with everyone.
Recognize red flags
There are several red flag behaviors I have noticed that indicate that the individual is starting to struggle with feeling subordinated to power, and they will begin to tear down the person perceived to be at the top. At this point, it is perhaps too late to utilize some of the preemptive techniques discussed here. But you will still have the opportunity to discuss power and control, ask for feedback, and help them process what they are feeling. If appropriate, you can then share more responsibility and help them have more control in their own life.
Unfortunately, some people are just not self-aware enough to be able to recognize what they are experiencing and don’t have the vocabulary and experience to truly grasp the effects of power and control in their lives. These individuals sometimes have their own dreams of power and want to be at the top themselves, and see tearing down a leader as the swiftest route. This is an issue we must address in the community as a whole and learn how to more effectively support good leadership.
Some potential red flags I have noticed:
A person joins your group claiming to be completely new and is seeking guidance. They then begins to tell everyone in the group all about the things they have done and does not remain open to instruction or guidance. This can be a subtle way to breed distrust in your leadership and encourage others to uproot you and follow their lead. While they may cloak their actions with the claim that they are trying to help, encourage sharing, and provide their own point of view, the fact that they are not open to feedback is a clear indicator that their motives may not be pure.
There is a line between sharing leadership and letting someone else run the show. Don’t let someone turn these techniques on you under the banner of shared leadership. If this happens, share your concerns, but be prepared if they say you are misinterpreting their actions or are just trying to maintain control of the group. If they do, I encourage you to have a conversation that perhaps this is not the right group for them and they should find a group that is working more with their apparent skillset.
You find the rest of the group members are meeting without you. Concurrently, behavior and the overall vibe of the group is changing. This can be a slippery situation. You should never ban anyone from doing anything. However, if the group is meeting behind your back and one person is secretly undermining you, this can be very unhealthy. My suggestion is to keep a close eye on the group dynamic. Do not begin to tighten your grip on the group to try to maintain control—this will only serve the purposes of the person undermining you. Encourage a group discussion about what the group wants and what direction they would like to go. Ask each group member to share a particular skill with the group and begin to incorporate those techniques into meetings to decentralize power and take some of the energy out of the sails of the person undermining you.
There is one individual who consistently blocks you in consensus-making or always has an idea that is “just a better solution” than yours. This is extremely uncomfortable and can be another way that someone uses shared leadership against you to gain attention and control. In this case, it is important to discuss the issue individually with the group members. If this person is blocking movement and decision-making, it is likely frustrating to the rest of the group as well. As a group, you should decide how to handle the situation. You could adjust decision-making for a while or decide to remove the person entirely if they are being obstructive.
These few examples can take any number of permutations but have the same end game, to (whether consciously or unconsciously) undermine and tear down the group leader.
In my own experiences, by not addressing these issues preemptively, our group relationship shifted to me being perceived as the untouchable leader who had all the answers and the group members feeling undervalued and like they needed “fixing.” This is not healthy and enables and perpetuates power-over, whether you actively utilize that power or not.
As a leader it is essential to have an objective third party as a sounding board. A mentor or peer that you trust can be the most valuable tool you have. Share your ideas about leadership with this person, explain the dynamics of your group, and ask for their feedback. They can help you decipher behaviors and look at the group dynamic from the outside to determine if there is a power struggle happening.
Changing the way we interact with others at the grassroots, in our groups and micro-communities, will have the greatest impact upon our culture as a whole. As the power shifts and equality gains momentum we can reach critical mass. Soon these discussions will be common and people will be more willing to unpack their own patriarchal tendencies and shift group dynamics. Abuse of power is rampant, but we also hold the power to shift culture. This is the work we are here to do. And it starts with you in your own community.
Starhawk. (1987). Truth or dare: Encounters with power, authority, and mystery. San Francisco, CA: Harper & Row.
Starhawk. (1997). Dreaming the dark: Magic, sex, and politics. Boston, MA: Beacon Press.
Harrow, Judy. (2002). Spiritual mentoring: A pagan guide. Toronto, ON: ECW Press.
Mountainwater, Shekhinah. (1991). Ariadne’s Thread: A workbook of goddess magic. Freedom, CA: The Crossing Press.
The Pagan Leadership Anthology is a fantastic resource. Purchase yours here.
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