A Recent Experience in Leadership and Scapegoating

Recently I participated in a retreat for leaders and advisers of leaders that took place at Commonweal in Bolinas, California. It attempted to be a coequal group in which everyone paid there own travel expense and food and lodging. Although there was large differences in age, ability, experience and reputation, there was no designated leader.  There were participants from the U.S., Canada, Rwanda, the Ivory Coast and Japan; business leaders and entrepreneurs, a leader of a religious institution, advisers and consultants, including an adviser to the president of a country and a scientist studying deadly epidemics who was interested in learning to lead. It was the second such retreat and there was no exact agenda or even purpose, other than an intent to understand the problems of leadership and leaders. A lot happened to all of us, though, like the agenda, it’s hard to be specific. There will be a third retreat in August. Everyone who came wants to return and a few people will be added by invitation.

At the first retreat with similar structure, agenda and intent, one participant had a great deal of trouble finding a place for herself. She resisted the format and some of the values discussed. She was one of the most experienced and credentialed people in the group and possibly had trouble with the horizontal structure. It’s hard to know exactly what happened, but she ended up being scapegoated. She was angry about how she was treated and undoubtedly felt some abuse from the group.

After the second group, I wondered how our group dodged even the scent of scapegoating. It was larger and more diverse and the discussion evolved further into difficult and contentious subjects. There was a lot at stake in terms of connections made and connections sought. There were several times when one or the other of us felt used or put down but we emerged from it, not unscathed but still part of the group, still feeling that sense of belonging that scapegoats never feel.

So often problems of groups, scapegoating in particular, derail even best-planned, best-organized events.  We were a small group of people from many different cultures and nations and got on really well and got a lot accomplished without a common base, except a devotion to leadership. Sounds easy but in my experience it is relatively rare. Perhaps it worked so because we all passionately wanted to do better as leaders ourselves in that regard, in a world leadership context of too many failures with such dire consequences.