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Addressing Difficulties in Leadership

Re-evaluation Counseling is a great training ground for leaders. In RC we have done well at creating an environment in which people who don’t easily think of themselves as leaders can take on1 leadership and develop into solid leaders. We also have done well at slowing down and counseling people whose patterned confidence, or enthusiasm to take on leadership, would have them lead beyond where they can function well. We’ve developed large numbers of leaders and supported them to good functioning. But there are times when leaders struggle in their leadership, and times when we struggle to back leaders and counsel them well on what is interfering with their leadership.


One of the confusions imposed on us by our societies is that a leader is special, superior, and therefore different from us. A lot of us have to battle this confusion to begin to see ourselves as potential leaders. Most of us don’t start RC feeling smart enough or special enough to be a leader. We are challenged to see ourselves in a new way when we learn that everyone inherently has the qualities to be an excellent leader.

The same confusion from our societies can cause us to abandon our leaders. Too often, caught in our feelings of inadequacy, we struggle to think clearly about our leaders and hesitate to act on our best thinking about them. This leaves them without a counselor and without help in their leadership. (We’ve created some structures to help counter this—like “counsel the leader,” in which we use the resource of the group to improve the leader’s access to effective counseling.)

We may be critical of or not fully supportive of many of our leaders, or not supportive of all leaders at least some of the time. Because of the criticism and attacks directed at everyone (especially leaders) in our societies, most of us come to RC with fears of attack or criticism, and patterns of attack or criticism, and those fears and patterns interfere with leadership. It’s important to create an environment in which our leaders can acknowledge a struggle without people criticizing them or withdrawing support, in which they can be less defensive and look more easily at their struggles. In such an environment, leaders can also look more easily at where they feel they are better than other people because they are a leader.


At times leaders may make mistakes, or look stuck or not so smart—not special in the way a leader is “supposed to be.” Then we’re often disappointed or upset with them. All leaders get stuck in distresses that interfere with their leadership. People have been hurt too much for that not to be the case. We have to back2 and follow leaders who don’t always function well. We have to stay close to them and be part of their battle against the distresses that are causing their struggles.

I think there’s a body of work that we as an RC Community need to do on backing and following our leaders (and a body of work that leaders need to do on welcoming input about their leadership). We’ve got to discharge our material3 about “needing” leaders to be special, “needing” them to know everything or to function in some certain way that reassures us. We’ve got to stop giving up on leaders who are stuck and don’t seem that effective to us. We’ve got to be able to align ourselves with people who we know will make mistakes and get stuck and even lead poorly for a time because of their distresses. This means that we have to take seriously our role as counselors who can and will stick with people as they work through early material that doesn’t shift quickly.

We know that leadership is critical to solid forward movement. We’ve learned this from our decades of Community building. It doesn’t work to distance ourselves from leadership (struggling or not), to be critical, or to hope that we can build something solid without being effective counselors for struggling leaders.

Sometimes a leader’s struggles don’t seem to move, and the Co-Counselors around that person ask that he or she be removed as a leader. In RC we are usually slow to remove someone from a leadership position. In my mind there are a number of reasons for this:

* When people take on leadership in RC, it’s a big commitment of their mind and time. Yes, it’s great for their re-emergence to have the opportunity to lead and challenge themselves with the support of the RC Community, but it’s also hard work and demanding—their leadership roles can’t easily be put on a shelf when other issues in their lives require a lot of attention. The RC Community benefits tremendously from the work and commitment of every leader. It’s not right to abandon our leaders when things get hard.

* It’s important for us as a Community that we take on4 the challenge of counseling one another through struggles, even when those struggles impact us personally (or seem to). Building community requires that we stay with each other through hard times as well as good. We can’t give up on using counseling in difficult situations and not have that affect our building of the RC Communities.

* No one comes into leadership without distresses that interfere with his or her functioning. Therefore, each leader will have to work through those distresses while in the leadership position. (Some distresses don’t show until the person takes on the role of leader.) If we decide that we want to replace a struggling leader, who are we going to replace that person with? In my experience, most leaders who are struggling are not surrounded by people who would do any better in the leadership role; the struggling leader is usually still the strongest person for the job.

* In our societies, a lot of our leaders have similar distresses, and what we learn from counseling one leader through his or her chronic material is going to benefit us in thinking about all leaders.

* And who said that we should all be able to function well, now, in all the areas of functioning required by RC leadership? Becoming a strong RC leader takes time, a lot of experience, a lot of sessions.

When leaders are struggling, what works best is for the Community to come close to them and help them get good counseling, so that they can discharge the distresses that are limiting them. This challenges everyone involved to move through his or her own distresses. Relationships may be stretched, but if we stick together and do the work, we end up closer. And a leader moving forward brings the whole Community with him or her.

At the same time, we don’t want the growth and functioning of our Communities to slow down too much when a leader is struggling, if there are others around who could play a role in keeping things moving forward. As we work on these issues and distresses, I think leaders will more often be able to say, “I can’t do that well now,” and look to see who can function where they can’t and ask for help. Instead of seeing this as a weakness of leadership, we can use the situation to develop more leadership and to learn how to work together more collaboratively, using all of our strengths.

Not replacing a leader but working closely with him or her won’t be easy. There are reasons why leaders are defensive about admitting their struggles.


We can use some of these ideas with new leadership. We can give people a chance to try things and figure things out for themselves but not leave them alone with what they don’t know how to do yet.

We also don’t want the progress of potential leaders to be thwarted by their leader’s distress. Sometimes a reference person can’t see the strengths of someone or get behind his or her development as a leader. Unseen people can still do lots of important work: They can build a good relationship with and back the leader who doesn’t back them. They can ask the leader for honest dialogue about why he or she can’t back their leadership and work on the distresses illuminated. They can build the Community by playing other good roles. They can work on not giving up on themselves. But if a situation like this persists for long, and the unseen people believe that it’s the leader’s distress that doesn’t let the leader see their strengths, they can tell the leader that they will contact the leader’s reference person for help with the situation, and then contact that person. We don’t want to leave these kinds of situations stuck for long periods of time.


Sometimes we do remove someone from leadership, and it is almost always (always if it is a reference person) in consultation with the International Reference Person. This has happened when the leader’s distress was interfering with the overall growth of the Community, or confusing the people around him or her and leading them in directions destructive to the RC Community, or when the leader was stuck in a way that was undermining important work in the Community (for example, the work on racism). In these cases, people have attempted to counsel the leader for an extended period, the difficulty has been communicated as clearly as possible to the leader (so that the leader could fully engage his or her mind in the fight to become clear of the patterns involved), and outside resource has been enlisted to try to shift the situation. But if the leader has been unable to change the patterned behavior, he or she has been removed from leadership. We’d like to be able to use the counseling process effectively enough to quickly eliminate every distress, but we’re not yet able to do that.

Diane Shisk
Alternate International Reference Person
Seattle, Washington, USA

1 “Take on” means assume.
2 “Back” means support.
3 “Material” means distress.
4 “Take on” means undertake.

Last modified: 2021-06-01 12:29:59+00