Column: Caveat Emptor

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Odùduwà is the power of the womb, the well of existence in the Yoruba religion. He is the progenitor of the Yoruba people, brother of Orisha Obatalá (the justice bringer) and, in some stories, the first ancestor. When the world was covered in water, it was Odùduwà who first descended from heaven and laid the spell that pulled up the land up from the sea, finishing the work of his brother, Obatalá, who had become inebriated partly through the work of Orisha Eshu. The first bit of land that rose from the waters would become the city of Ile-Ife, Nigeria, the spiritual center of the Yoruba religion and the gateway to heaven.

Statue of Oduduwa at Obafemi Awolowo University in Ile-Ife, Nigeria. Photo Credit: Manny Tejeda-Moreno

Statue of Oduduwa at Obafemi Awolowo University in Ile-Ife, Nigeria. Photo Credit: Manny Tejeda-Moreno

When human forms were later molded by Obatalá, Odùduwà became their first emperor, the Oba, of Ile-Ife. It would be through him that all the lineages of all the Yoruba would trace ancestry. He would become the father of all seven leaders that headed the seven kingdoms comprising the Yoruba confederacy. Still, while Odùduwà would be revered as the founder of the Yoruba and first builder of the land, neither was an act of leadership. He would not become the Orisha of leadership. He was simply there laying those foundations and doing the groundwork as it were. Leadership was something else.

The title “Orisha of Leadership” would belong to Orisha Chango, the fourth king of Òyó, one of the seven Yoruba kingdoms. Through Obatalá’s tutelage in diplomacy, justice, governance and kindness, Chango would become the Orisha of Leadership because of his hard work, his intelligence, his compassion and his charm. Chango is charismatic, powerful and seductive. He would show his faults: ego, arrogance, lust and manipulative tendencies. He is imperfect, but he uses all his industry, intelligence and charisma on behalf of his community, in order to make it ethical, just and powerful. But Chango is also genuine, eternally and deeply concerned for his children. Despite his temper and his self-absorption, Chango works hard — inexhaustibly hard — so that his children can succeed. He goes into battle for them, prepared for his own sacrifice so they might thrive in a difficult world.

These stories are complicated. They are part of an oral tradition and so versions of the story naturally vary. But they offer some important insights into what our expectations should be of our leaders. Simply put: leaders should serve; they should be genuine; they should be transparent.

There is large body of science concerning leadership, literally tens of thousands of research studies. It’s far too much to cover, but the evidence points in much the same direction. Effective leaders organize compassionately, avoid judgments, engage their community, serve transparently, and act genuinely; see Yukl (2012) for a comprehensive review.

Despite the wealth of lore from many traditions, the idea of “leadership” is a modern construction. Somewhere around 1821, the words “leader” and “ship” get combined during a speech in British parliament to mean the demonstrated act of being a leader. Before that point, words were used like headship, origins of which seem to go back to the 14th Century.

But the Proto-Indo-European root, leith- from which the word leader evolves in the Western language set has a deeper meaning. It means “to leave and die,” in modern parlance, to sacrifice. It echoes the theme of the dying and rising god, and that theme is found across the Pagan landscape from Baldr to Dionysius to Quetzalcoatl. Leaders suffer and sacrifice to bring new life into the world. They exist to serve. Their acts of service to the community should define them.

And that is what’s important in these messages: the community should come first. This should neither be underestimated nor subordinated. It remains one the great wells of strength that is tapped by all faiths. Yet, that message is consistently underappreciated and even overtly ignored by some leaders in favor of their own insights, authority and careers. It is important now, as we make choices about how we will spend our resources of time, money and spirit.

As the festival season clicks the turbo button, we experience an annual embarrassment of riches. Almost uniquely to the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom, we experience an opportunity to be in a community that is often denied to a broader Pagan world.  These festivals are an opportunity to enter fellowship with others of similar minds, faiths, paths, and ways of interpreting the world around us. Festivals are a tremendous opportunity for such fellowship. But, regrettably, they have also become increasingly tainted with a focus on celebrity over community.

Festivals are not sacred sites; they will never rival the natural majesty of such locations. They can take place in or near sacred locations. More importantly, they can be sacred encounters. On a day-to-day basis, many people exist in relative isolation from other Pagans. The occasion to engage in uncensored, non-judgmental conversation is uncommon within most of our professional lives and even throughout our daily lives. The opportunity to share personal gnosis or spiritual experiences without persecution can be stiflingly rarefied. The act of simply being among is itself powerfully transformative. That act requires no celebrity and no confounding of leadership with celebrity; it only requires community.

Rather than focus on the opportunities and strength of fellowship, there’s an overt competition to find individuals who will provide the biggest draw, and then confusing acts of salesmanship or entertainment with acts of leadership. Now, before going on, I should be clear. Make no mistake with my point here: festivals must make money in order to survive, and that’s perfectly fine. That sustenance means a future festival.

However, often times the role of a leader becomes tiredly entangled with secondary professions like performer, author or speaker. We like the term headliner, and we even focus on those people as the reasons to go to a festival. Sadly when that happens, we also diminish the significance of fellowship. We fall into the common — even mainstream — spiral in which the power of the community is underestimated; launching a slow but real and persistent slippage to attract festival goers by offering interactions with celebrities.

[Photo Credit: marfis75 on Flickr]

[Photo Credit: marfis75 on Flickr]

Now “celebrity” isn’t bad, but it’s not leadership, and conjoining that space opens a dangerous door. Celebrity is presentation; it is talent and in some ways, disguise. Celebrity rarely seeks humility or transparency. It rarely espouses hospitality or subordinates itself to community. It may say so, but it seldom feels genuine. Celebrity is pomp. It’s about claims; it’s about sales. It is much more about marketing than service, genuineness or transparency.

And it’s troubling. But not because we shouldn’t have headliners, and not because the festival producers shouldn’t make money. Both are good. It’s troubling because we get treacherously close to mixing celebrity and religion, especially when we actually have true leaders in our community who do offer their service, genuineness and transparency without having anything to sell.

In Dune, our ancestor Frank Herbert (1965) explores how the powerful will exploit religion for social control. Herbert shows how ritual and religion can come together to create an elite class that ultimately promotes hierarchy and suppresses revolutionary thought. He certainly was not the first to make such commentary. Another ancestor, sociologist Max Weber (1947), also argued that, while the tendency toward bureaucracy constituted the most rational solution for social organizing, it also built an impersonal “iron cage” of rule-based social control.

But above all, Weber noted that groups — especially when there is a time of need or confusion — have a tendency to seek leaders to explain the world and offer us insights, or help us navigate the mystical and become more powerful. Weber termed it charismatic authority, a form of leadership and power that comes neither from legal nor traditional authority. This form of authority that can, in its darker moments, attempt to consolidate all three to become controlling and nothing more than celebrity. Sociologist Eileen Barker (1984) famously aligned these behaviors with the leaders of new religious movements, especially cults.

And there is an even darker side here; a much darker one.

Those style leaders focus their charisma on building their celebrity and status. They use the tools of marketing and manipulation to entrench themselves in the lives of followers. They promise the revelation of secrets; they insist on making followers feel chosen or invested in being graduated as new spiritual leaders themselves.These individuals seek devotion through the promise of spiritual awakening. The worst of these types look to sex as a means of control, while others are even more sinister in that they demand emotional intimacy. Some of these spiritual “leaders” will add a sense of inclusiveness and secrecy that promotes the specialty of the followers and go so far as to offer a unique name that identifes those people on the outside, and those on the inside.

These leaders place themselves as the gatekeepers of spiritual paths. They cultivate a belief in their power, their insight, and their hidden knowledge. They nurture adoration and finally suggest a price. Sometimes the price is fiscal, sometimes it’s emotional. And through that price, they seek control over others. They selfishly channel our energy to themselves; all in the name of spiritual awakening and the building of a new and powerful movement.

But that is not a movement. It’s an audience. And community inoculates us from these kinds of deceptions.

Creating and sustaining community is about building a network of options and support that strengthens our spirit. The community gives us the courage to build a mission and the hope to see it fulfilled. A strong community helps us live, helps us achieve and eventually helps us die. Community helps us grow our spirit and helps us release it. Our stories, our experiences and our teachers share the certainty that leaders must be in community with us. Good leaders and powerful leaders work within community so they themselves are no longer needed. They are our headliners.

The Pagan, Heathen and Polytheist movements have been famously insulated from achieving cult-status. By having no central charismatic figure, there is no authority and no bureaucracy to decide how our morality is to evolve. There is no one person responsible for validating our experiences or legitimizing our beliefs. Pagan scholarship, from as early as Adler’s (1979) groundbreaking Drawing Down the Moon and Luhrman’s (1991) problematic Persuasions of the Witch’s Craft, has consistently demonstrated that the group and not the person was critical to the viability of a Pagan movement. Even in our more prominent spiritual organizations with centralized leadership, the role of the central bureaucrat is to support, not validate.

Our approaches to consensus are a testament to our community-focus and commitment. Real leaders leverage that strength to make themselves obsolete. They strive to be genuine and build the trust of those they serve. They don’t need to appoint magical successors or keepers of secrets; their message is their magic and their community is its manifestation. Our community is blessed with many.

The respected elders I know in several traditions have never denied access to their knowledge. They have never hidden behind secrecy or secrets, and they are the first to admit when they too are grasping for answers. If they are oath-bound, they say so but never make you feel like outsider or unworthy of such knowledge. They are apologetic when they are narcissistic, ungrateful and controlling, because they share their failings. They are not special and want to share their ordinariness. They expose their humanity rather than boasting their exceptionality.

These kinds of leaders don’t care about lighting up a room: they care about making a connection. They care about community. The coming summer and festival season offers us a new opportunity to live in community. It also offers us the opportunity to witness how are leaders strengthen it. Those relying on celebrity will point to their magic, those relying on the joy of community will stand aside as the magic happens.


Adler, M. (1979).  Drawing down the moon.  NY: Viking Press

Barker, E. (1984).  The making of a moonie: Choice or brainwashing.  Oxford: Blackwell.

Herbert, F. (1965).  Dune. Philadelphia : Chilton Books

Luhrmann, T.M. (1991).  Persuasions of a witch’s craft: Ritual magic in contemporary England. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Weber, M. (1947).  The theory of social and economic organizations (T. Parsons, Transl.). NY:  Free Press.

Yukl, G. (2012). Leadership in Organizations. NY: Pearson.