Parker Palmer on Leadership

Last Meeting for Worship with Attention to Business I read a passage out of the opening silence. Here it is:

Unfortunately, our idea of leadership has been deformed by a myth that links leadership to hierarchy, as if leaders were needed only in systems that operate from the top down. But when we are in “community”—which, at the turn of the kaleidoscope, evokes the romance of an instinctive life together—we can dispense with a designated leader, allowing the role to pass spontaneously from one person to the next. Or so goes the myth.
Yet in my experience, a community requires more leadership than a hierarchy does. A hierarchy has clear goals, a well-established division of labor, and a set of policies about how things are supposed to run; if the machine is well designed and well lubricated, it can almost run itself. A community is a chaotic, emergent, and creative force field that needs constant tending. And when a community’s aims are countercultural… its need for tending is even greater.

The authority …a leader [in community] needs is not the same as power. Power comes to anyone who controls the tools of coercion, which range from grades to guns. But authority comes only to those who are granted it by others. And what leads us to grant someone authority? The word itself contains a clue: we grant authority to people we perceive as “authoring” their own words and actions, people who do not speak from a script or behave in preprogrammed ways.

Pp 76-77, Parker J Palmer, A Hidden Wholeness: The Journey Toward An Undivided Life – Welcoming the Soul and Weaving Community in a Wounded World. 2004, John Wiley & Sons

Seeing this in print, I feel a need to add to it my understanding that, in community, we all grant each other leadership authority, in varying degrees. I tend to think in terms of “leadership behaviors,” which are all behaviors that advance the life of the group as a whole.
Reminding us to stack the chairs after the Adult Education hour is a leadership behavior. Reminding us that the newsletter deadline is approaching is a leadership behavior. Wiping down the tables at the end of the Fellowship hour is a leadership behavior: if no one does it in a timely fashion, the group will have a (relatively slight) problem it needs to overcome, later in the day or week. We rely on each other for these initiatives. Members of formal committees and committee clerks take on identified leadership, but all of us have opportunities to perform acts of leadership, and most of us do.

6 Responses to Parker Palmer on Leadership

  1. James Riemermann May 31, 2008 at 8:36 am #


    At our meeting the other day, I made the comment that I don’t care much for leadership — leading or being led — and that I seek to find approaches to leadership that accommodate my dislike for leadership.

    I like the fact that Quakers call their leaders “clerks.” It’s a very humble word, and I think we should try to live down to its humbleness. Clerks push little paper boats out onto the pond–boats mostly made by others–to see what floats and what sinks.

    For all but the most critical communal undertakings–and the vast majority of our undertakings are not critical–I prefer a friendly failure to an unfriendly success.

  2. Nat Case June 12, 2008 at 11:35 pm #

    I keep going back to the comment (I know not whence it originally came) that Quakers abolished not the clergy but the laity. Jerry Frost contends I think rightly, that liberal Quakers, especially in the last half-century, flipped that around. I know I grew up with a distaste for bossy bullies.

    But part of the problem is in the models we use for leadership. If what we know of leadership is presidents and board chairpersons and angry parents, well, it’s not very inspiring. I almost think another word is in order… if the old name carries too much baggage, sometimes its best even for a little while to ditch it.

    Myself, I like the word ministry because it’s such a direct and personal activity: ministering to wounds, ministering to someone’s needs. What we call leadership here is essentially a kind of ministry: we call out of others what needs to be done.

    It all comes down to power, and the model of the Quaker clerk who has no power (and indeed generally restrains him or her self from inserting his or her thoughts into the committee’s work), and who therefore can exercise leadership is a good one… would there were more of that kind of leadership in the world…

  3. James Riemermann June 25, 2008 at 1:18 pm #

    I guess I think leader is not just a word with a negative connotation, but is fundamentally the wrong word for what we’re talking about. A leader is someone who calls the shots for other people. That’s not a distortion of some ideal model of leadership, but what leadership is.

    The way people are, a certain degree of leadership seems to be necessary. I don’t deny that, but I don’t like it. I see the Quaker model of decision making, among other things, as a step in the evolution away from leadership. We’re not sufficiently evolved and cooperative to go all the way and leave leadership behind, but as far as I’m concerned that’s the ideal.

    I agree, ministry is a much better word. Ministry is still ministry whether anyone follows or not. It has value, positive or negative or unknown, as soon as one delivers it. We are obligated to listen to others’ ministry as deeply as we can, and that listening may transform us. But in the end we need to think and feel for ourselves what is right, and offer our own ministry, which might sometimes conflict with the ministry of another.

    And I guess I don’t agree with Jerry Frost, at least not in the little corner of Quakerism I have come to know. I see active and inspired ministers everywhere I look in Twin Cities Friends Meeting. It is one of the most striking qualities of our meeting. The fact that many of us are uneasy being led does not mean we are not giving or receiving ministry.

    As you may have noticed, this is not Quaker doctrine, nor gospel order. It is just me and my little ministry.

  4. John Cowan August 18, 2008 at 2:10 pm #

    Continuing the discussion on leadership.

    I have led and followed and have no difficulty with either position in itself, although on occasion the circumstances have made taking either role unpleasant. Perhaps the difficulty that is being expressed on this string with leadership has something to do with followership? Perhaps following is seen as supine, flaccid, sheeplike?

    In the best case I follow because I like the vision the leader is presenting or causing to be presented. For instance on the whole I like the clerk’s vision for the Meeting for Worship with attention to Business.

    After I have had occasion to know a leader for a while sometimes I take the vision on faith because he or she has shown me over time that they tend to get it right. For instance when my wife tells me that I am inappropriately dressed for a party. Or, when the clerk introduces the Q-horn which I instantly dislike but am giving it a ride because he has been appointed to lead our process and the very fact of his being appointed, (begged?) indicates he may know something I do not.

    (Note there, that while clerks do not lead the content they certainly lead the process.)

    Sometimes I follow because I have no idea what is the correct thing to do. For instance my mechanic says the brake pads need changing.

    Sometimes I follow because the other person saw the need first. Fixing the mold in the meeting house did not occur to me but now that some have led on the matter I am willing to follow. Make that “eager to follow.”

    In some cases I follow leaders because I am paid to do so. Whenever possible if I do not value their vision or feel that I have the opportunity to influence it I seek work elsewhere.

    And sometimes I refuse to follow. As a person who enjoys leading I am continually setting directions and inviting others to follow. When they do I also invite them to help set the direction. And if they do not follow, I take that as a sign I probably had an idea that lacks charm. So be it.

    There are other forms of leadership besides “despotic.” Why change the name?

    An organization that did not value or support leadership I suspect would wander around in circles, debating small things forever while large things went undone.

  5. Liz Opp(enheimer) November 21, 2009 at 5:04 pm #

    I see the threads of leadership, authority, power-over, and power-with being blended here.

    And I experience differences between God’s leadership (giving us leadings) and the authority of our meetings to make decisions based on corporate discernment and testing of those leadings.

    Perhaps at a future date, I will be able to write more about these distinctions…

    Liz Opp(enheimer)

  6. Liz Opp(enheimer) November 21, 2009 at 5:11 pm #

    It seems to me that several threads are intertwined here that should be pulled apart to allow us a closer look:

    1. Leadership
    2. Authority
    3. Power-over
    4. Power-with.

    Sadly, I have little time right now to think through the distinctions of these related concepts. But I do wonder if we have a hard time being humble–

    What does THAT mean, to be humble or to keep low? If we cannot do these things, then I worry we will misuse our own sense of power, authority, and leadership.


    So much to say. So little time to write about it…

    Liz Opp(enheimer)

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