This is probably applicable to any type of leader, but since most of my experience is in the polyamory leadership world, that is the audience I’m going to write to.
Talking authoritatively to fellow leaders is a really vulnerable sort of endeavor, especially to write about qualities that make a good leader. It’s one of the reasons I’m writing about it. Clearly there are things I don’t know. Advice I make and positions I hold right now are probably going to need to be revised and corrected in the future. I’m probably wrong about some (read: many) things. And I’m really young as a poly leader to boot. The nerve of me!
Anyhow, within the limited spheres I’ve interacted in, I’ve noticed something troubling. Many poly leaders, myself included, have some difficulty in leading by example.
What could I possibly mean by that? To a large extent, we do our best to treat our partners the best way we know how. We take responsibility for ourselves in the ways we’re aware we need to. We respect consent. We try to approach problems within our communities with level heads and open minds. We encourage and we show compassion and we give fantastic advice. Isn’t all of that leading by example?
Well, sort of. People need good models for all of these things. We’re doing great and very important work by modeling these things. But we’re missing something critical.
We need to let people see us fuck up.
We need to let people see us be vulnerable, raw, emotional, and broken. We need to let those of our relationships that fail do so publicly, in the moment, while we still don’t know how things will resolve and while we’re still hurting (within reason and respecting the consent of our exes). We need to publicly apologize. We need to admit that we have no idea what we’re doing. We can and should do this with as much tact and grace as we have in our toolbag, but we need to do it.
Many people do this in some ways already, but my experience is that it tends to be intellectualized. We talk about breakups long after they happened and after the scars have healed. We talk about consent violations, bullying, and abuse well past the point at which some of the fences have been mended and the people involved have either scattered to other communities or have rebuilt bridges with us. We give people play-by-plays…. after the fact.
We also pressure one another to do this. Whether implicit or explicit, there is still plenty of shame about sharing from one’s personal life, giving one’s personal opinion, or (heaven forbid) being a part of some major drama. We suggest that people should “not air their dirty laundry,” or that if they are going through a challenging time it might be better to step back or step down from leadership until they’ve “got it together.” Sometimes these people are too hurt and ashamed to ever try to come back. They’ve been silenced by people who are more concerned with how something looks than how it actually is. Instead of silencing one another, we should be supporting one another as leaders, in the ways that those requesting support ask for and need. What we think is best for them and what we think they need isn’t necessarily correct. Acting like we know better, even if we think we have perspective they don’t, is patronizing and unfair. They need their process just like we needed ours.
I get it. We want to model good behavior and we want other leaders to do the same. But here’s the problem. Our good judgment comes from bad judgment. We are showing an end product without any of the process. We lead by our actions in those areas we think it is okay to end up. We do not, quite as often, lead by example in times of confusion, pain, and despair (other than to act in ways that suggest that we should just keep it quiet and pretend it doesn’t exist). How do we expect people to figure out how to get to the same place we are (as in, an authentic, more developed, and fairly stable place for them) if they don’t see any of the mess it took to get there, or the continuing mess that it can and will be?
There is a necessary concern about how the larger culture views polyamory. It’s understandable to want to put our best face forward, to not look like hypocrites, and to show people that, “No really, we’re good people we swear.” But the respectability politics come at a cost. In some spaces and in some cases, that cost is worth it, but I think we pay that price way more often than we should, and often even within our own circles lest the outer world find out that *gasp* polyamorous humans make mistakes and mess shit up just like all the rest of us. After all, isn’t one of our most highly touted qualities honesty? That means we must be honest, even about the stuff that goes wrong, and especially about the stuff we know is right when the rest of society might disapprove.
And there is also a necessary concern about stealing the spotlight, being a rock star, and siphoning more support and resources out of a community than we put back into it. A good leader absolutely puts work in and provides resources and does so without recognition much of the time. But we must be careful not to fall to the other extreme. We are not perfect, and we need to show that with our actions instead of our words. We need to take risks, be human, and show our authentic selves in our positions as community leaders. We can show people appropriate ways to reach out to others for support when we are hurting, and that it is okay to do so. We can use our positions of privilege to set examples for the entire range of our lived experiences.
Because when we do it, we give others permission to do the same. When we share from the bottom of our soul, we show others that we’ve been there too, that we’re going through growth as well, and that it is okay to make a mistake. It’s way too easy to never state a strong opinion, or never have a conflict in a visible social media space, or never admit that you were wrong publicly. The end result may be that we never let someone observe us making a mistake, and I think that means we are doing our communities a huge disservice. We are suggesting, even if only passively, that our emotions, our struggles, and our disagreements aren’t appropriate to share.
I disagree. Just like silence and inaction favor abusers, so too do they foster climates of shame and control on a much larger level. We are not good advocates if we become blank slates of pseudo-perfection in our ivory towers. We are not good leaders if we don’t, in the words of the great Ms. Frizzle, “Take chances, make mistakes, and get messy.” We are not setting a good example if we don’t allow ourselves to be transparent in those grey areas, places of uncertainty and doubt.
Now, I am not saying that people should be pressured to go public about things they aren’t ready to do so with. Some shit is so huge that the only way to deal with the trauma of it is to withdraw. Some people are in too much pain to spend time worrying about helping others to learn from their process in the moment. That is okay. They aren’t the kind of person I am talking to. But for those of us who can, those of us who have been around this block once or twice, those of us who are really only afraid to let someone see us fuck up…
Fuck up. Do it.
Fuck up loudly and shamelessly. And then, with just as much transparency, show how you are trying your best to make it right. This is what will help us to hold ourselves accountable, to see our errors and our missteps faster, to let others help to hold us accountable.
Because everybody needs good models for how to apologize after you’ve hurt someone. Everybody needs good models to see that self-punishment is an easy temptation, and a wrong one. Everybody needs good models for self-forgiveness, and those insecurities that still run through our minds. We might know how to deal with them now, but we didn’t always. If we can bare our guts more frequently, other people can learn from our mistakes instead of having to make all of them on their own.
And as leaders we need to stop shaming other leaders for this. Even if you don’t want to show people the inner workings of how you are human, shame on you if you shame other people for doing so. Shame on me because I’ve done it. Shame on the people who have done it to me. Shame on me for letting them. Shame on me for still being afraid to talk about some of it publicly because I fear backlash. Because I still am.
But no, shame actually doesn’t help anyone. Because the shame is what makes us still want to hide. See that, that was anger up there. That was betrayal. That was fear. I am admitting to you that there are things that have hugely impacted me that I am still having trouble being public about. I wish that weren’t the case. I wish I had the courage to just stand up and speak my truth without fear of how other people will react. I wish I had the strength to call people out for the ways they’ve hurt me. I’m getting there. Feel free to ask me about it. I won’t lie to you or hide from you, even if I’m not in a place where I can publish it yet. Even if you are one of the people that hurt me. I want to start having these conversations, even if they’re going to be messy. And I’d love to do them where we can be seen, where all of us can be held accountable for the path forward.
So I’m asking for us to create a new culture. Authenticity, vulnerability, compassion, these are things we talk about a lot. It’s time to start walking our talk. I’m not sure what to call it, maybe Transparency Culture. We have started building a culture of consent, which is fantastic. I think this is the next step. There are some leaders that are great at this, in some areas, most of the time. None of us are perfect at it, and none of us ever will be. But we can learn how to be better by putting ourselves out there and taking those risks.
And I apologize. There are people I’ve hurt. There are people I haven’t communicated well with. There are people I’m still trying to figure out how to reconnect with, how to repair. And with some of those people I still hold a lot of anger towards them for the ways they’ve hurt me. I’m trying to learn how to balance that with the knowledge that having them as allies will almost always be better than having them as enemies. And I’m trying to treat them respectfully, and I’m trying to make sure to communicate and enforce my boundaries for my own health in the meantime. And I still think about it a lot. And I’m still not quite over it yet. And that’s okay.
Will you work with me to do better?
p.s. One of my friends that read this first pointed out that I deflected and backhanded an issue early in the piece by criticizing myself for being young with some biting sarcasm before anyone else could do it. Thank you. You’re right. I’m leaving it there as an example of how non-optimal I can get when I’m scared to say something. I should have just come out with my message instead of being defensive right out of the gate.