Laura Paskell-Brown is active in Women of Spirit and Faith, where she edits this blog, and facilitates circles. She lives in Brooklyn with her roommate Doan and a cat called Rupert.
I’ve always been a mouthy, precocious little bugger. I was the kid at school voted “Most likely to be Prime Minister”. I turned every discussion into a debate, and my favourite activity was “being proved right”, which, according to me, happened rather frequently.
So an organisation dedicated to developing the next generation of spiritual leaders seems like the perfect place for me and my big ego. Right?
During my first encounter with Women of Spirit and Faith (WSF), I saw women at the front of the conference room, and immediately assumed that they were our “leaders”. In my arrogant way, I also assumed that I would soon be one of them. Then something strange happened: they began turning to everyone in the room, asking what we thought, what we felt, what our experiences were, and what we thought wanted to emerge next. I was baffled. “What are they doing asking everyone? “ I wondered.
That was my introduction to leadership, WSF-style.
The next day it got even weirder. When a group of young women decided that we wanted to talk about mentoring, we were encouraged to host our own circle. Circle practices are vital to the new leadership paradigm. In a circle all participants are equally close to the center, and therefore equally valued. Though I would have denied it at the time, valuing all people equally wasn’t exactly on my agenda that day. After everyone sat down, I put on my most competent face, and took control, even though I didn’t have the faintest idea what I was doing. I guess it was my way of putting myself up front again, of letting them know I was “a future leader”. It came from arrogance, and from the simultaneous fear that I was worthless if people didn’t see me as special.
But nobody shut me down; they simply sat quietly. And it was their total trust that the circle would allow what needed to happen to happen, which enabled me to do something I had never done before. After an awkward minute or two of using Roberts’s Rules – the only tool I had at that point – I stopped, listened to my heart and said: “I don’t think I can run this circle the way it wants to be run. Is any woman here who feels she can better facilitate?” There was a brief pause, in which I began to feel disappointed in myself. Then a woman elder lovingly stepped forward and we had one of the most powerful circles I have ever attended.
In this new paradigm, leadership is about stepping up when you feel called, and stepping back when you don’t. It’s about listening to your heart, and to Spirit – however you encounter Her/Him/It – and being willing to play the role that only you can play. Each person is important in his or her own right, but it is the circle that leads, not any individual. This was the key point I made in “Part I” of this blog. The way we have experienced leadership for many centuries has been based upon a hero worship that has placed leadership in personality traits or in particular roles and titles. The new paradigm does not focus on leaders per se, but on leadership practices.
At Women of Spirit and Faith, anyone who sits in one of our circles is a leader because leadership is located in the circle, not in you or in me. This shift in emphasis allows us all to take responsibility for what happens, as well as forcing us to trust The Mystery. I have facilitated many circles since that day at the conference, but I don’t take credit for how they turn out, and I no longer think that my job is to give people answers, (which is lucky, because often I don’t have any). A circle holder simply provides the loving space for answers to emerge. Which they always do.
Of course, though I do try to keep it in check, my oversized ego is still lurking. Anyone who knows me will tell you I still talk too much, and I have occasionally been known to sound patronising. Luckily, circle is big and strong enough to absorb our character defects, which allows us to act from our best selves when it really counts.
In short, collaborative leadership practices – and there are several different forms, circle being just one – enable anyone to show up as the imperfect people they are, to admit that they don’t always know what the plan is, and then to be part of leadership anyway. In this humble way we are being guided to envision a new world, and collectively taking steps towards creating it.