Leadership And Power In Intentional Communities

These traditional issues get redefined in experimental communities

One of the articles in Governance (IC#7)
Originally published in Autumn 1984 on page 23
Copyright (c)1984, 1997 by Context Institute

Corinne McLaughlin and Gordon Davidson have extensive experience with intentional communities, having been members of the Findhorn Community in northern Scotland, being the co-founders of Sirius Community in Massachusetts, and having done extensive travel and research for their book, The Spirit Of Community, an overview of new intentional communities, to be published by Stillpoint in May of 1985. In this article, they draw on that background to look at the balance between leadership and equality as it has developed in intentional communities. Copyright ©1984 by Corinne McLaughlin and Gordon Davidson.

DECISION-MAKING is of primary importance in intentional communities. According to sociologist Benjamin Zablocki, who studied hundreds of communities, the major portion of time community members spend together is involved with it. But relative to businesses and villages of the same size, communities have far less complex governance structures – even the larger communities like the Israeli kibbutz and the Hutterite colonies. So clearly, communities are pioneering some important new approaches to governance that could be helpful to both business and government. This pioneering is already having an impact. According to social researcher Michael Macoby in his book on The Leader: A New Face for American Management, many corporate executives are already integrating some of these new techniques into their leadership style, such as non-linear, non-rational problem solving, with much feedback and participation by workers.

An important part of this pioneering concerns the role of leadership, an area of both successes and difficulties for many communities. Zablocki found that, of the communities he studied, 25% of those that had disbanded offered reasons relating to the exercise of power and authority – the power of leaders over followers, of males over females, of founders over newcomers, or of the less committed over the most committed. Members of most new intentional communities feel the importance of creating right relationships in the area of power and authority. Although there is much experimentation and diversity in style, there is also much commitment to live up to certain ideals in this area.

In her recent research on communities for her book, Earth Community, Susan Campbell found that communities which had a more centralized authority structure minimized intra-group power struggles, and identity or role confusion. Providing clear boundaries and guidelines about how things should be done saves people from wasting their time on small decisions. These groups generally were able to direct most of their energy outward into service projects in the world, and had a more visible impact on the mainstream culture. On the other hand, Dr. Campbell points out that these groups may be managing their dissonance within themselves, rather than expressing it outwardly in conflicts with others. The negative aspect of this, she observes, is that it may increase one’s tolerance for centralized authority, for better or worse, and when conflict with others is curtailed, conflict within oneself increases.

In communities with less centralized authority, more energy was required to deal with interpersonal differences and personal identity issues, and more time was spent in community meetings on decision-making. Individual learning and responsibility was thus fostered, but there was less energy available for directing out into the world. Fewer tasks may get done, but they were done with a greater sense of team spirit and ownership by all the members.

Communities which begin with highly centralized authority like Ananda and Stelle communities often shift over time towards more decentralization, as members become willing to take on more personal responsibility. And some communities which began with a more decentralized and organic structure have begun developing clearer lines of authority, as they learn from experience to be realistic about what works and what doesn’t. Sun Bear, founder of the Bear Tribe, comments:

"I’ve tried for a long time to make people equal, to empower people, and they wouldn’t respond, they won’t move beyond a certain level. Some people are institutionalized in community: they can function in community, but not outside of it. They couldn’t survive outside the sheltered atmosphere of community, and those are the people you have to look after. And what they return to you for helping them, is that they carry part of the weight. For example, not everyone is capable of running our Medicine Wheel Gatherings, but you’ve got a lot of people who can park cars. The important part of the game is learning how to utilize the energy of all these different kinds of people. People who are willing to put more into life, they should get that return. You’ve got to acknowledge that. Some people are just content with getting by, and some want more."

The Bear Tribe, like many communities, learned that although you might create political equality, where everyone has equal rights and equal voting power, you can’t create total equality. Although everyone is equal in potential, not everyone is at the same level of actually manifesting their full potential. Pir Vilayat, founder of The Abode community speaks of "the democracy of the ego and the aristocracy of the soul."

From our own experiences with communities, we’ve noticed that people are at different levels of ability to take responsibility, and so authority and power should reflect that. You can’t have one without the other. Some members of a community seem to naturally feel a greater commitment to making the community work, and are more identified with it than others. Not everyone in a community may be concerned that a bill is late in being paid, for example, as they don’t feel it reflects on them personally. But for others, it’s just the same as if their personal bill is late in being paid.

We’ve also observed that too strong an emphasis on a belief that "everyone is equal" often creates an unrealistic idealism, and puts a tremendous burden of expectation on people. And it usually leads to resentment when people don’t live up to that expectation. We’ve noticed that putting too strong an emphasis on everyone being equal, or on a demand that everyone should be equal, is also a way that people avoid taking full responsibility for themselves, fully recognizing, accepting and developing their own abilities. Sometimes an overemphasis on equality can reflect a lack of self-worth, as it is a demand for reassurance that a person is "just as good" as everyone else. A distorted sense of equality can also cause the community to express the lowest common denominator, with members being threatened by the achievements of other members, so that a true excellence cannot express itself. Sometimes structures are created which make it difficult for any individual in the community to have access to very much power. No one is empowered to act on behalf of the group. An avoidance of clear lines of power and authority can often be the result of a lack of trust, for which lip service to "equality" is just a cover-up.

On the other hand, when unquestioned obedience is demanded and authority is centralized and almost deified, imperfections in the leadership can be so traumatic to members as to cause them to deny and even suppress the truth. Recent problems of this kind at the San Francisco Zen Center led to some essential lessons as Zen student Katy Butler explains:

"I believe that as our communities mature, we will learn to treat these talented teachers with a realistic American kind of respect they need. We have been driving them crazy by accepting everything they do as an expression of religious teaching. Living without feedback in a community of emotionally dependent people is something like living in a sensory deprivation tank. It distorts the perceptions and isolates the leader."

Many communities have worked on creating a balance between centralized and decentralized leadership by having a rotating system of leadership, with different people taking turns at leadership at different times, or through having leaders for different functions or tasks (e.g., administrative, social, spiritual, educational) as we do at Sirius Community.

Some communities, like Findhorn, encourage non-dynamic types to "focalize" or direct various work departments. Rather than being a leader in a traditional sense, focalizers hold the focus for a work department. Community member Stephen Clark, explains:

"Leadership at Findhorn is based on a hierarchical pattern, not of power, but of responsibility. If my responsibility, as focalizer of the publications department, is to ensure that deadlines are met, the way that’s carried out is not to insist that someone meet a deadline, but rather to share, in the most open and clear way possible, the reasons for it to happen. Being a focalizer, holding a broader awareness of the way a whole system operates, I try to share that awareness and allow each person to contribute his or her part."

In decentralizing governance functions at Findhorn, the principle of leadership has not been eliminated. Rather, a balance between hierarchy and democracy is being created. According to former community focalizer Francois Duquesne:

"Dough doesn’t rise without yeast. There always are a few people carrying the initiative in a community. There are always natural leaders, initiators, pathfinders. What is needed, though, is to find creative, harmonious ways of relating that dynamic, initiating energy with the sustaining, maintaining energy, which is just as important. Clear transactions between the initiators and the maintainers need to be found. If there’s too much maintenance, then you stagnate. If there’s too much initiative, leadership runs off and is cut off from the grass roots. So disease sets in both ways. To negate the need for yeast or leadership, though, is to ask for trouble. But the leaders must build a bridge of communications with the rest of the community."

The most unique and important feature of governance at Findhorn is its process of group consensus and "attunement" – basing decisions on inner guidance. The form it usually takes is for group members to begin discussing the facts surrounding an issue, and then to express their own personal opinions and feelings about it. This lays the groundwork for the group meditation. It’s like laying all your cards out on the table, so to speak. Then each person works on releasing his or her own personal opinions, and then asks for guidance from the Divine Mind on the decision to be made. A short meditation is held, often with members holding hands, sitting in a circle. Afterwards, each person has a turn to share what s/he experienced in the meditation. Generally, a clear consensus emerges from this – the puzzle pieces all fit together well and create the whole picture. The decision is obvious to all. If not, it may not be the right time to make the decision as other factors need to come into the picture first. Or perhaps one or more people in the group haven’t really released their personal opinions and don’t feel very clear about the issue from a higher level. (We’ve also used this method at Sirius Community and found it very effective.)

Sociologist Rosabeth Kanter in her study of hundreds of urban communities found that "negotiation rather than authority is the basis of relationships – even when some people have more influence than others, that influence has to be negotiated, and it may not even be overtly acknowledged by others." Many communities work on equalizing the status of members, and blurring role distinctions. Group consensus is one of the most popular modes of decision-making in communities. Consensus means agreement by the whole group with the general direction of a decision, with no serious objections. Consensus is experienced intuitively as a sensed unity within the group on a specific issue. The advantage of consensus decision-making over traditional majority/minority voting is that each person feels the decision is his/hers, and feels a responsibility to carry it out. There is no minority that feels resentment. The best thinking of all members is included in the decision.

Power issues are difficult to avoid in community, even when there are no leaders and everyone is equal. The biggest power struggles are often over seemingly mundane issues. According to Rosabeth Kanter in her study of urban communes, "The cleaning issue is the principle arena for power struggles – how to make order, whose standards prevail." Another big issue is food. Sun Bear, who’s visited many communities, commented, "I’ve seen more people almost kill each other over food and diet than over anything else."

While power issues always have to have some arena of expression, from our own experience of many years of community living, it seems that a great deal of what goes on in community is in reality just people dealing with their own issues of power and slowly learning to empower themselves. We’ve recognized three steps, or tests, of power in community that are essential:

1. Individual clarity and insight: before you can really challenge someone else’s authority, it’s important that you get clear within yourself (seek your own guidance) about what is right, what is the real truth of the situation, regardless of other opinions.

2. Courage: being able to speak up and confront those in authority with what your own inner sense of truth is, even if it’s very unpopular.

3. Love and non-polarization: not being attached to the results of your position when those in authority don’t agree, and still being able to keep your heart open to your opponent without reacting negatively.

Usually it’s difficult for community members to maintain integrity in all these areas, so conflicts arise. But power struggles are usually resolved when: there is willingness on the part of both sides to really listen to each other, to hear an opposing perspective; when the person in authority becomes more identified with the membership, more sensitive to their needs, and shows a real willingness to yield; or when the membership becomes more aligned with the community’s purpose and goals as represented by the person(s) in authority.

Where there is rebellion against authority in a community, it’s important to recognize whether it is really a manifestation of the need of a person to claim his or her own authority. Often there is an inner conflict in the person about being a leader him/herself. Community leaders who are more aware psychologically help members deal with this internal conflict, rather than getting caught in the position of having to put down rebellion and assert external authority.

Ultimately, power is not something that can be given to someone. Someone is powerful because of who s/he is as a person – his or her personal qualities.

If a community is responsive to the innovative spirit seeking to express everywhere, then its main goal will be to empower individuals – to draw forth leadership in everyone, rather than create dependence on leaders, no matter how enlightened they are.

Community governance is based on one of two assumptions: The old assumption was that people are basically unable to direct themselves or take responsibility, so leaders have to take care of them. The new assumption is that people already have the potential wisdom and creativity within them, so the task of leadership is mainly to educate and encourage. How you set up a situation has a lot to do with how people respond. It can be structured so that people are encouraged and inspired to do things for themselves, to make their own decisions, and to take on more responsibility. They can be helped to develop self- confidence and a sense of self-worth. An expectation of responsibility helps to draw that out. People have tremendous creative power to affect each other. This is not to say that there is no leadership function per se, but rather that leadership is educative, rather than directive. As the ancient Chinese sage Lao Tzu said, "Leadership is best when the people say, ‘We have done this ourselves’."