Leadership and Scapegoating

What can a leader of a group do about scapegoating in his or her own group? It’s too easy to say that it is one of leaderships most important jobs even though successful leaders must protect talent, creativity, differences and fair demography from being undermined by the scapegoating process. But how to do it without oneself becoming a casualty? After all leaders are the most common scapegoats in any group, particularly if they are not backed up by absolute institutional authority which often includes the threat of force. Leaders in the United States, say the President, are routinely scapegoated if not assassinated!

Recently I participated in  a group in which the familiar and difficult problem of the abuse of women became prominent. The leader was accused of personally  perpetuating the abuse of women. It was hard to know whether that was true or not because little thought or discussion  time was given to facts as the anger from woman and sympathetic men took over and the scapegoating of the leader gained steam.

The leader said that other more pressing and difficult  problems in the group were being set aside by this  attack. But all such comments were seen as defensiveness and excuse. When would he apologize, became the cry!

I think the leader knew he could apologize and possibly change the direction of the group. But apologies are not often useful when they are manipulations and not emotionally felt, as was apparently true in this case. In fact, either forced or insincere apologies  fuel the very problems that leads to scapegoating. In this case the leader allowed the attack to proceed while carefully suggesting, when he was allowed to speak,  that it would be valuable to understand more about what was happening in the group including what was being hidden by the  attack. Eventually this approach was successful in that it led to a careful consideration of what apologies did and did not achieve, including the differences between apologies, reconciliation and forgiveness. Nevertheless considerable personal  damage was done to both the leader and some of the  members who were caught representing abuse for the group.

One of the problems in this example is  that the women’s  sub group identified as abused were not willing to break ranks with their “sisters.” Emails from women in the group to the leader as well as post group discussions documented this phenomena with much private  talk of soul searching about the negative  consequences of supporting the leader rather than the women claiming abuse. And yet, in practice only woman could have stopped the “get the leader” dynamic. All  men were labelled abusers and therefore their comments were not considered relevant.

Unfortunately this is all a very common occurrence in scapegoating groups. Members who stubbornly holding to politically correct views rather than supporting reflection and exploration about  a given situation are complicit in keeping scapegoating alive and well. Of course, victims do need support even when they are perpetuating their own sacrificial roles and creating the scapegoat role for others.  One woman told the leader that a sacrifice was needed and the leader was strong enough to bear that. Perhaps she was right. My own sense ws there must be another way.

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