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Co-Leadership in Magical Groups

I was introduced to the co-leadership style in 1981 when I joined a Wiccan coven in my home town. Two points which initially struck me was that in many ways, the High Priestess—High Priest relationship acted as ‘surrogate parent figures’ to the group, and of the two leaders, the High Priestess was by far the more forceful of the two. Later, I learned that the ‘High Priest’ of the coven was in that role only due to the fact that he was the Priestess’ husband, and that he personally was more concerned with keeping an eye on his wife’s activities than being committed to his own magical work. As I was to discover, this is not an unusual situation in magical groups, where one partner is more interested than the other and their partner’s presence in the group is tantamount to keeping an ‘eye’ on what the other is getting up to. In one memorable instance this led to divorce proceedings being filed when a husband challenged his wife to choose between him and ‘magic’.

The co-leadership approach to magical groups is fairly widespread. It is commonly used in Wiccan covens, by workshop facilitators, and in magical organisations (for example, the Magister Templi - Insubordinate relationship as used by the Illuminates of Thanateros). In this article, I will examine some of the characteristics of this approach to group leadership.

When is Co-Leadership appropriate?

A significant issue related to magical groups is the impact of the background belief-system or ‘tradition’ which the group identifies with. Thus a newly-forming Wiccan group often ‘has’ to have a High Priest & High Priestess because these ‘positions’ are seen as necessary due to the background belief system, rather than necessarily any informed decision about the needs of that particular group, or the effectiveness of the relationship. Thus group leadership roles tend to be structured according to tradition - be it prior experience, what is written in magical books, or the dictates of a parent body organisation. However, as these roles will have a significant impact on the group’s life, I would argue that there needs to be some exploration of what co-leadership involves.

Advantages of Co-Leadership

Co-Leadership is particularly useful if the group involved is large, and participants need careful monitoring or support. A large workshop group would be an appropriate example, particularly if the group’s activities range over a large space. Also, co-leadership can provide mutual support, particularly when one of the leaders is lacking confidence or needs to work on their group skills. Discussions prior to, and after a group meeting can be useful for mutual support, discussion of the group’s development, and in planning and evaluating activities. In a difficult group situation, the presence of both leaders can act to diffuse feelings of anxiety & tension, as well as providing practical support. Another advantage is that co-leaders can learn from each other, both in the group and in feedback sessions. This can be useful if part of the relationship is aimed at transferring leadership skills.

However, co-leadership may have a negative influence on the group when it is uncoordinated. If leaders having different opinions and approaches for the direction and the group, then this can lead to confusion and unease, particularly an argument blows up between leaders in front of other members. This can easily escalate into a situation where members feel that they have to ‘take sides’ with one leader or another. It’s important in this type of situation for co-leaders to be seen to be supportive of each other. This usually entails some negotiation and discussion between leaders about how they wish to present themselves to the group.

Couples as Co-Leaders

It is not uncommon in magical groups for an established couple to be the leaders of the group. This can lead to problems, where one partner continuously reinforces the views of the other without taking other factors into consideration, or when emotional tensions are brought to the group. An extreme example (but not uncommon) is that of a leadership-couple breaking up. This can quickly polarise the other participants in favour of one partner or another, and it becomes very difficult for the group to survive this crisis. It is also difficult for partners to remain in the group after the nature of their relationship has changed.

This approach is most effective when each partner presents themselves to the group as an individual, rather than being seen as a ‘couple’ and are able to distance themselves from their intimate relationship when working on group issues.

Gender-mixed Leadership

Research from therapeutic groups suggests that a female-male partnership can have some advantages. It is also a common feature of many Wiccan covens and other magical groups, particularly where there are strong beliefs about the necessity of ‘polarity’ between masculine & feminine. However, there has as yet been little research into how the Priest—Priestess dynamic influences group behaviour. It can create the ‘surrogate family’ atmosphere as noted in the introduction - which may be initially beneficial but can lead to transference problems or a situation where the leaders themselves become habituated into acting as surrogate parents towards group members. Obviously, some types of groups will require leaders of the same gender.

Effective Co-Leadership necessitates that:

Leaders feel comfortable with each other

It should be obvious that, for this relationship to be effective, the co-leaders need to feel comfortable with other and develop a relationship of mutual trust - which takes time. In the example of the Wiccan coven given in the introduction, the apparent distrust between the Priest & Priestess gave rise to a feeling of relief among group members (including the Priestess!) when he wasn’t present, yet was also tinged with a degree of guilt that he might disapprove of what went on in his absence.

Leaders need to work together & respect each other’s contributions

Co-Leaders need to meet regularly in order to structure group activities, give each other feedback and identify any problems which might arise in the group. The partnership needs to be one of equality. Group members can quickly perceive an unequal relationship between leaders. Situations where there are two leaders yet one partner is obviously doing all the work, or where leaders ‘compete’ with each other in the group will have detrimental effects.

Leaders share common aims and objectives regarding the group

Leaders need not necessarily share the same beliefs & perspectives in all areas - different skills, approaches and perspectives can broaden the resources of the group. However, if leaders’ different approaches result in attempts to pull the group in different directions, this can quickly lead to confusion and tension in the group.

It should be noted that the size of the group will also influence the co-leader dynamic. The situation of having two co-leaders and 1 ‘other’ member may sound rather strange, but from my own experience, I would suggest that this is not uncommon in the magical milieu. This can occur with newly-forming groups where, as noted above, the relevant ‘tradition’ dictates that the group has 2 leaders. Unless the leaders are able to re-negotiate their status as regards the other person present, this situation can quickly become frustrating for the other member.