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Leaders or Consensus?

This post was written by Donald Michael Kraig
on April 9, 2013 | Comments (2)

I don’t know who originally stated it (maybe one of my readers knows), but there’s a statement running around the U.S. political blogosphere that “Republicans look for a leader while Democrats look for a consensus.” Whether or not you agree or disagree with this description, it would seem that the organization of occult groups seems to fall into one of two major categories: Those that have a leader whom members follow and those that seek a consensus from all members. Each has benefits and negative aspects. I contend it’s important to understand which format your magickal group, order, coven, etc. follows. By stressing the positive aspects and being aware of the potential negative aspects (and stopping them before they irreparably harm the group) you can assure group success and longevity.


Most groups have leaders. It’s a simple structure that usually follows a pyramidal structure. At the top is the leader. In the middle are his or her administrators. Below that are all the members of the group.Pyramid

There are many advantages to this “top down” structure. The primary one is that as one of the members you can simply focus on the work. You don’t have to think about structure, organization, the inevitable politics, or anything other than doing the work. If there’s a question, you ask a person in the middle. If you still have an issue you go to the top. What the leader—someone who is theoretically better trained or more knowledgable that you—decides is the final word. After all, due to his or her training, knowledge, ability, experience, and direct links to the inner-plane watchers of your group, he or she has—or should have—the enlightened ability to make the correct decisions and provide the correct answers.

This, unfortunately, is also one of the problems with the top-down structure of leader–administrators–followers. The leader is often seen as having some skills or abilities that others cannot develop for themselves. The leader becomes the unquestionable representation of all that is good about the group, and he or she and the administrators will do whatever is necessary to keep the leader in power.

When the leader is seen as the only link to the inner-plane contacts of your group—the gods, the secret chiefs, the hidden masters, etc.—the group can evolve into a cult of personality. Cults have their own issues, and to determine whether the form of your group is more like a cult than a spiritual group, see the The Advanced Bonewits’ Cult Danger Evaluation Frame available HERE.

Even if your group isn’t a cult, groups with such a pyramidal structure can have other issues, some of which are described in Nick Farrell’s recent blog post HERE. The most obvious problems are based around his point 4 and 5. Point four warns against turning founders into deities. I agree with this. Deities cannot be questioned or disagreed with because, well, they’re freakin’ gods and goddesses! As Noah found out, you don’t say “No” to a god.

However, I think it’s important to add that a problem can exist not only when the founder(s) are deified. It can also be a problem when current leaders become treated as deities or the only link to deities. Naturally, due to their experience, training, and position they deserve respect and their information and advice should hold more weight than a person off the street. But this should be because of its logic and accuracy, not merely because it comes down from on high. Farrell’s first point is that your magickal order is dead (or, I would say, dying) if the group produces no adepts. Unfortunately, in his post he doesn’t define “adept.” I would suggest that one of the signs of an adept is that he or she can go right to the Source of your group’s spirituality—the watchers of your group, the gods, the secret chiefs, the hidden masters, etc.—without needing the leader.

Sometimes, when a group starts off well and does produce adepts, a leader, do to feelings of inferiority and insecurity, starts to claim even higher authority. Only he or she has access to higher powers. Only he or she can provide All New! Previously Secret! Ultra Powerful! wisdom and techniques. In this way the leader tries desperately to keep power. This certainly happened to Golden Dawn groups in the past. It wouldn’t surprise me to see this happen to some of the groups claiming to be Golden Dawn today. It may have already happened.

This leads to Farrell’s point 5. In order to protect his or her power, the leader will make sure that the administrators are “yes men,” never challenging the leader’s authority and always agreeing with the leader. This is bad for any organization.

Perhaps a sort of Fool or Court Jester is needed by occult groups. As quoted in Wikipedia, The Royal Shakespeare Company provides historical context for the role of the fool:

In ancient times, courts employed fools and by the Middle Ages the jester was a familiar figure. In Renaissance times, aristocratic households in Britain employed licensed fools or jesters, who sometimes dressed as other servants were dressed, but generally wore a motley (i.e. parti-coloured) coat, hood with ass’s (i.e. donkey) ears or a red-flannel coxcomb and bells. Regarded as pets or mascots, they served not simply to amuse but to criticise their master or mistress and their guests. Queen Elizabeth (reigned 1558-1603) is said to have rebuked one of her fools for being insufficiently severe with her. Excessive behaviour, however, could lead to a fool being whipped, as Lear threatens to whip his fool.

Although in virtually every occult group I’ve been involved with there has always been one or two people who act like fools, perhaps magickal orders and covens should add as an official post that of Jester, to make sure that people realize the leader is only a leader and neither a god nor the only link to the gods.


There are many advantages to rule by consensus. Although I haven’t seen many ceremonial magick organizations run by consensus, there are many covens that are run this way. Everyone has a voice and can be heard. Everyone’s point of view is taken into account. The idea is to avoid the negative problems of the hierarchies created in top-down organizational structures. For some groups, working together to find a consensus works incredibly well and builds a firm bond between members. After all, everyone is equally valued.

But for some groups, trying to find a consensus takes more time than doing rituals. Everyone must be consulted. Everything must be agreed upon. Changes cannot be made without everyone’s approval. All of this takes time, energy, and effort which could be spent more profitably actually doing magickal work or magickal study.

There are several problems with relying on a consensus structure in magickal groups. First, lots of time is used up with organization rather than practice. Second, it necessarily denies any actual links between the spiritual and physical worlds, or at least downplays their value. For example, if an adept with direct spiritual access to those who watch over the Order presents a new ritual to the group, his or her input has no more value than that of someone with no previous experience and who was brought into the group yesterday.

I’ve only seen one attempt to have a consensus structure control a ceremonial magick group. It was a disaster resulting in the group breaking up within two months. What usually happens is that the person without training, learning, and experience does not have the same value to the group (from the perspective of adding to the practices and knowledge of the group) as does the member with such training, learning, and experience. The result is that like it or not, every group develops some type of hierarchy. To deny such a hierarchy is deceptive and misleading.

The idea of avoiding hierarchies through the use of consensus is noble but naive. It seeks to avoid the problems of such top-down hierarchies as described above. However, it also ignores the fact that leadership and hierarchies are natural and have some benefits.

Hierarchies in groups will develop whether you like them or not. By insisting on operating through consensus where everyone has equal say, the problem is that those who just want to follow are placed in positions where they are uncomfortable, and those who are capable and want to lead have their strengths downplayed. Instead of the group trying to make people stronger and capable of working together more effectively, the group ends up bringing people down to a level where people are not doing what they want or what they’re good at. This is not necessarily bad for the individual. Eventually, each person will acknowledge his or her lack of satisfaction with the group and leave it. If the goal of the group is to be transitory then it can be quite successful for that purpose. But for long-lasting spiritual work as a group, such organizations have rarely been successful.

Am I saying that the pyramidal top-down structure is better? As the long description of the potential problems (which barely scratches the surface of such a structure) shows, that’s not the solution, either.

Farrell says in point six from his post,

“It is the duty of every chief to have a clear successor, who is usually an adept who can continue the work of the order.  This is particularly important to long established Orders.  If the work is focused on the chief, which sometimes happens, then the order closes.   However if the group is to continue the successor is obvious and publically recognised to make sure that any transition is smooth.  An order is on its way out when it cannot manage this or encourages senior people to fight for the top job.  Succession is always based on the person’s magical ability and their contact with the same spirit behind the order.  Politics cannot enter into it.

I absolutely agree that “If the work is focused on the chief…[when the leader leaves the group] then the order closes.” I have seen this repeatedly. If the order doesn’t close it certainly becomes worse. Farrell mentions the B.O.T.A. in his post. In my opinion, the founder of the group, Paul Foster Case, chose his successor because she, Anne Davies, was allegedly his mistress, not because she was qualified. She radically altered the information in the group’s teachings, often eliminating material by Case which was of great value.

This also means that a leader of magickal groups should not hand pick or choose a successor. Rather, it should be obvious due to a potential successor’s ability, skill, knowledge, and talent.

This, in my opinion, also reveals a possible solution to the challenge of group structures. Neither the strict top-down structure of leader/followers, nor the loose structure of consensus-only groups is effective in the long term. I would suggest that a combination of both would be far better. Let leaders lead. Let followers follow. Let the hierarchy be open to anyone with appropriate knowledge and skills, not closed to those who disagree with or challenge leadership. At the same time, the goal of the leadership should be to create independent and capable people who have the skills, knowledge and ability to fulfill any role in the group. Improve each member’s individual strengths and let them find where they want to be in the hierarchy and give them the chance to do the work.

And that should be the bottom line. Does whatever format the organization of the group you are part of, or seek to become a part of, best allow you to do the work? Does it allow you to learn more and develop your skills.

Ferrell’s last point, his last sign that your magickal order is dead, is that the members “forget how to do the magic…If for some reason the group starts to forget that it is on its way out.”

To avoid that, just do the work.

Reader Comments

Written By Peggy Tiner
on April 9th, 2013 @ 11:32 pm

Sure glad I didn’t read this 10 years ago. If I had, I would never have joined a Pagan group. But I hadn’t read it so I joined a coven and have learned and grown spiritually for several years. Also had fun and gained good friends.

Written By Bill Duvendack
on April 12th, 2013 @ 10:55 am

Interesting post, considering that I am currently involved in a few groups; one of which is consensus based, and another that is leadership based. I can completely see where you’re coming from, and what is worth mentioning is that in order to have a mix of both, it takes some strong people skills to pull off. Those skills are not as much about spirituality as they are about group dynamics, and an understanding thereof. Just my two cents.

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