Leadership is a two way street. Those who lead only do so because of those they serve. Mind, I did not say ‘follow’. Leadership is inalienably about service, or it is tyranny. Leadership is also risky. For Pagans this danger is acute. Besides putting oneself out in public which inevitably makes one a target, compounded by the isolation the role also produces, Pagans all too often operate by the ‘penguin’ mode of leadership.
Penguins, it is said, follow their leaders down to the waterfront and stop before going in. The leaders, at the front of the pack, scan the waters for orca, leopard seals, and the like, which prey on penguins. But the waters are dark and the dangers, invisible. So, the pack pushes the leader in. If they come back up, they all jump in. If only blood comes to the surface, they go swimming elsewhere.
Leadership is often about taking risks, but it must be matched by the loyalty of those the leaders serve for it to succeed. Both must be worthy.
Let me discuss this by focusing on the primary ritual for establishing a leader using the language of religious professionals in our culture.
In religious leadership this is especially exhibited in ordination, and is at its best in groups organized on the basis of congregational polity, the technical term for self-governing groups that ‘hire’ their spiritual leadership. This form is shown most plainly in religious communities with a population of trained religious professionals, in our culture they are generally called ministers, but the same structures apply with differing degrees of formality in most complex cultures.
In these cases, the congregation ‘calls’ the minister to serve them. The minister has been trained in the requirements of the denomination and has made themselves available. The congregation vets and selects the minister (or this is done by the hierarchy in churches without congregational polity), and then they are duly installed in a ceremony in which both parties acknowledge their mutual obligations, the minister to serve and the congregation to support. Ordination is a special case of this, but also the archetype.
Usually the Minster is already ordained, which generally happens once at the beginning of their ministry. The installation is a lesser version of the same. But, back at the beginning, after attaining to whatever qualifications are required of them, a minister-in-training is presented to a congregation, nowadays often where they interned. They are then ‘called’ quite literally by the congregation or their representative to come and serve them. Upon agreeing to do so, the congregation literally or otherwise lays hands upon them and blessing them, consecrates the new minister to the task. It is this act that makes them a Reverend. In more hierarchically inclined organizations, this is done by the church leadership, such as a bishop making priests in the Catholic church, but the same structures still apply.
It may be a while before Pagans operate at this level of formality, but we have our own means through initiation and other processes to train our leaders. What is important here is that this ritual of ordination embodies the fundamental relationships required for leadership, especially in religious communities. The reverence such a one is due is not because they have some kind of spiritual power or authority, but because they have been called to and have willingly accepted the burden of leadership in a spiritual community. This burden means they place the good of the community before their own: that they must endure the intense scrutiny of accountability and often accept severe limitations on their own lives, like poverty and unpredictable demands on their time.
On a level kin but meta to intellection, is the leadership role that those who run publishing operations are in just by the structural position of their work. This is why their actions are never without charge. As Napoleon Bonaparte said, “Four hostile newspapers are more to be feared than a thousand bayonets.” The power of communications channels are never to be underestimated.
Without accountability these powers do what they please. Our communications can be filled with pablum. Our events can become feel-good gatherings, but no advancement to our community develops. Some are dead set against institutionalization, the only known means of working towards a goal across generations. Some are for building them, in the face of the inevitable power dynamics of the iron law of oligarchy. But when those who control the channels and the events subtly or directly undermine the conversation we need to have about these choices, the decision becomes theirs, and not the community’s.
Who do we select as leaders? Many like myself are self-selected. We build, we gather folks about us who would work and worship as we do. Our selection is in joining with them. Others start events, publishing enterprises, or write in public like blogs. For some, it is their celebrity that gains them attention, and thus thrusts them into leadership. Others have the good fortune of being in an organization, howsoever formal, that nurtures them, assures that they attain the proper qualifications for that group, and then duly invests them with authority.
There is no avoiding leaders and leadership. Some step up with eyes open, some have it thrust upon them. Some attain to that role by the work they do. In each case, those who lead are accountable to those they serve. Without that relationship, without the means to be held accountable, and without the support of leadership which justifies that accountability, we create only tyrants and demagogues.