These Words Do Not Mean What You Think They Do
If I were to ask you to close your eyes and consider those three words and think of a person embodying them, the image you construct would probably read as male in gender. And the person you have made in your mind’s eye probably exhibits many old school tropes that derive from patriarchy-based ideas of what leadership and power and strength look like. The person in your head is probably “large and in charge” — they stride confidently around, giving orders and dominating the scene. They know all the things, and no one gainsays them in anything. They rule because no one in their orbit can imagine them as being weak or fallible. This is the the image of leadership, power, and strength that our patriarchal society has instilled in our psyche.
Increasingly in the 21st Century, such rigid notions of leadership are considered passé. And I maintain that in modern neopagan communities, rejection of rigid patriarchal leadership models is an absolute necessity. We must realize that the words leadership, power and strength do not mean what you might think they mean.
The new trend in discussions on the topic of leadership is the idea of vulnerability. Unless you’ve been living under a particularly large rock, you’ve probably heard of author and vulnerability researcher Brene Brown. Her books have sold in the millions, and her TED Talk “The Power of Vulnerability” is one of the most viewed TED Talks of all time. And when you google search for leadership and vulnerability, almost everything references Brown’s work. Her core teaching is that only through being vulnerable can we achieve the kind of authenticity that allows us to fully connect with others, and from that we get love, acceptance, courage and all the things we need to be successful in life. It is how we win the trust of those we seek to lead.
I think that it’s important at this point to be very specific about what vulnerability is and what it is not.
Vulnerability is honest. When a person is being truly vulnerable, they are laying bare parts of themselves that most people work hard to keep hidden. But it’s important that the exposure is genuine both in substance and motivation. True vulnerability involves authentic revelation of the real shit in your life, with the purpose of establishing a real connection based on shared humanity. Authenticity here is crucial, and its absence will be noted. You really can tell when someone is merely pretending to be vulnerable. Sometimes the pretense is that their big revelation is something that is not actually emotionally meaningful to them, and sometimes it is because they are choosing their revelation in a calculated way to obtain leverage. There is a kind of cynicism that you can smell, and it is very unattractive. No one likes to be played.
On the other hand, vulnerability is not gratuitous. Brene Brown likes to say that “vulnerability without boundaries is not vulnerability,” and in that she is correct. We have all been the victim of someone’s tendency to over share, and instead of producing a sense of connectedness, it produces a kind of revulsion. Sharing all our vulnerabilities too readily backfires because it denotes a lack of understanding of how social exchange is supposed to work, and undermines trust rather than inspiring it. No one likes to feel that they are being used as an emotional dumping ground, and one who is so radically heedless of their own sensitive places is likely to have the same lack of care with ours if we share them.
Vulnerability is not a demonstration of weakness. Quite the opposite, in fact. It takes a great deal of courage and strength to allow another to gaze upon things that are personal to us, that are potentially embarrassing or emotionally difficult. Mumbling that everything is fine and avoiding the direct gaze of people who care about you often seems easier. Pretending we’re not afraid of anything, that we’ve never made mistakes, that we know it all or that we’re not struggling plays into patriarchal notions of what strength is. It’s that romantic notion of the lone wolf, the resilient hero who doesn’t let anything get to them. Here’s the thing about that notion — it’s pure bullshit. It’s a pretense that papers over real problems and real feelings and therefore real solutions right along with it. You can’t fix a problem if you can’t even acknowledge its existence.
The person who pretends it’s all fine is not just pretending that externally to others, they are usually also pretending the same thing to themselves. They mistake keeping their problems contained with solving them. Living in denial of your problems, containing them, ultimately fails. Because the problems do not stay quiet or get smaller. They always find a way to get to the surface. And as they claw their way back from the recesses of your psyche that you’ve tried to shove them into, they usually leave marks. Deep, bloody marks.
We’ve talked bout how difficult shadow work really is, and how necessary it really is to our growth as people and as pagans. It’s understandable why people would seek to avoid their shadow work. It’s difficult and painful and when you embark upon the journey you really don’t know how you’re going to get to the other side or where you’ll end up when you do. It takes a lot of courage to take up shadow work. It takes a lot of power and strength to complete it. Shadow work is really about the process of making yourself vulnerable to yourself — of really examining the things in your life that are a source of pain and hurt and bothering to understand why they are there, how they work, and taking the time and effort to fully dismantle them so they can no longer operate in your life.
Ultimately, that’s why vulnerability is so important. Our communities need leadership that works, that lays problems bare with honesty and compassion so that we can solve them rather than ignoring or exacerbating them. Traditional notions of power and strength and the leadership tropes based on those things do not serve our communities in this day and age. It’s arguable they never did. Years and years of leadership that does not have the courage or strength to truly face society’s problems, that papers over poverty and inequality and injustice, has left us here in the 21st Century deeply divided, and with too many people living too close to the edge.
Contrary to the thought exercise we started with, real strength is not about domination or about how intimidating you can be to others. Strength is about being able to face difficult problems with honesty and integrity, being effective despite your flaws. Power is not about who or what you can control, or manipulate, but rather the exercise of creativity and the number of people you can empower. And leadership is not about a person standing in front and everyone else following them blindly, it is about creating the example for relationships and actions within your group that allows people to work together effectively to reach the desired results. When you look at these words in this new, refined light that acknowledges the necessity of vulnerability, how does that picture in your mind’s eye that you first imagined change?
But, what, you may ask, of the power of secrecy? If we make knowledge more sacred and powerful when we don’t share it, doesn’t that also mean that If I am being authentic and vulnerable, aren’t I undermining my power as a witch? How am I supposed to be that awesome powerful magical practitioner I want to be if I choose the openness that vulnerability demands?
This is where we discuss in more detail the cost of using the power of secrecy, the limits of that power, and the limits of vulnerability.
Remember as an initial matter, that vulnerability is not gratuitous. No one is suggesting that you need to make your life an open book where you parade all your most problematic and embarrassing moments to everyone all the time. You are a witch, not a reality TV star. It is perfectly okay to be discerning in what you reveal to whom. And yes, there is power in that choosing. But as I’ve said before — retaining secrets, even for the purpose of strengthening a magical working, comes at a cost. The separation that comes of being secretive, that categoric denial of vulnerability, is isolating. And just as one can go overboard with too much vulnerability, one can go overboard with too much secrecy. A witch who is so committed to secrecy that they never let anyone see them as a real person in a state of authentic vulnerability will actually miss out on the power of connected working with others.
Contrary to what one might think, the need for vulnerability is particularly high for those working in oathbound and hierarchical traditions. Although we tend to think that hierarchical structures demand the kind of command and control leadership model that denies vulnerability, the truth is that for hierarchy to function well, leaders must be willing to be vulnerable. Most of the kinds of horror stories that people like to tell about hierarchical organizations — abuses of power, hazing, retaliation, sexual misconduct — are all more likely to occur in environments where vulnerability is discouraged. Authentically, appropriately vulnerable leadership in hierarchical structures is in fact a safeguard against those kinds of problems. Leaders who can admit they aren’t perfect, who offer support instead of demanding compliance, who can be in a place of shared struggle with those they lead not only will find their group is stronger for it, but their magical practice will be stronger as well. Group magic is always stronger when there is trust between the participants. The foundation of the deepest trust in another is not the belief that that person is infallible. It is the belief that that person will try to do right by them, even if they mess up.
And to be honest, as a leader, this evolving idea of leadership should come as a relief. Trying to be a perfect paragon that knows everything, that always does the right thing, and never admits to weakness of any kind is exhausting. And in the end, it’s setting yourself up for failure. Because the truth is that as a leader, at some point, somewhere you are going to fail to meet someone’s expectations of you. The problem with being put on a pedestal as a leader is that they are precarious places and if you get up on one, it’s a pretty sure bet that at some point, you will fall off. Practicing vulnerability in leadership ensures that when you do fall down, you have a soft place to land. And if you know that you have that, that’s when you can have real confidence. Because it’s not just on you to make things work. You can rely on the strengths and power in all the members of the group, not just your own. You don’t have to do it alone. And you can admit that you don’t always have it together. You can do all that and still be a strong, powerful leader. In fact, it might even make you stronger and more powerful than you might have been otherwise, both in your mind’s eye, and everyone else’s eyes too.