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Gilded Serpent presents...
Leadership Risks
by Mary Ellen Donald
Originally published in Bellydancer Magazine in 1978 as part of an ongoing column. This magazine was published by Yasmine Samra in Palo Alto, California.

“Enjoy yourself or try to learn – you will annoy someone.  If you do not – you will annoy someone.”[1]  These words of wisdom from Sufi literature have been a great comfort to me over the past year.  I hope they will do the same for you.  Let me share with you what I’ve learned about being a leader and you’ll see what I mean.

If you teach (even a small class), direct a troupe, or sponsor guest artists in workshops or shows, you are a leader. 

When you lead people, you take certain risks.  One such risk is that of self-revelation. 

nixonWhen you teach or direct a troupe, your philosophy and personality step forth for others to inspect.  Often you are taking your dreams and putting them on the line, asking others to help you realize them.  Sometimes you will find that some of your dreams should remain just dreams, better not acted upon.  Sometimes you will seriously ask yourself if you are being too presumptuous in asking others to realize your dreams.  Don’t ponder this question for too long because you will see that people will follow you only as long as your dreams and theirs are compatible.

The positive side of this risk of self-revelation is that when you give reality to that which was simply an image in your brain, you can interact with it, modify it, reject it, truly own it as yours, or grow beyond it.  Otherwise, if you hadn’t taken courage to give substance to your image, it wouldn’t have had much impact on your life.

If you’re the kind of person who wishes to please everyone, then acting as a leader will bring definite challenges to you as you struggle toward maturity.  Of course, if you surround yourself with a few always admiring followers, and lead on a small scale, then you’ll probably get lots of gratification from hearing that you’re pleasing everyone.  When you venture further out into the world, attempting to lead on a larger scale, you’ll be jolted for sure.  You’ll find some will spontaneously like you and others dislike you.  Some will rejoice at your every success, others will envy every upward step you take.  Still others will appreciate what you do much of the time and disagree other times.  Here’s where Nasrudin’s wisdom comes in.

I’ve come to realize that to lead is to make judgments, to decide.  Every time you decide to put one dancer at the beginning of the show, you’re deciding to put another farther along.  When you choose one musician’s rendition of a song, you’re excluding another musician’s rendition. 

When you call on one student to demonstrate a certain step in class, at that moment you are eliminating every other student as demonstrators of the step – and so on.  Many who experience your decision as a rejection will feel hurt, annoyed, or angered by you.  Not easy to take if you are wishing to please everyone.  All you can do is honor the principles and feelings that are important to you and decide for or against people, activities, or ideas accordingly.

When you lead people, you have to put a lot of energy into organizing.  You have to organize thoughts, images, goals, tasks, and help others to organize such things for themselves.  As one who finds great pleasure in organizing things well, I’d like to share some of my thoughts and observations with you about good organizing.

1.  If you take excessive pride in good organizing, you make yourself extremely vulnerable to others.  The slightest breakdown in your plans can upset you terribly.  You might feel (as I’ve often felt) that one of the worst things someone could do was to mess up your well-laid plans.  I’ve softened my feelings in this area after organizing several weeklong seminars involving hundreds of details and many people. 

I learned with difficulty that I couldn’t program people to be like robots – never getting sick, never having marital problems, never having car trouble, never forgetting, never losing their cool. 

I find that now I just chuckle to myself after organizing something very tightly and ask, “What will be the breakdowns in my plans today?  What might I have forgotten?”, knowing that whatever it is, things will still work out okay.  What I’ve learned is that the best organizer is one who can be imaginative and adaptive when things go wrong, rather than one who tensely pushes for the impossible, expecting people to be more than human.

2.  You won’t do very well if you organize in a rush. 

First you have to organize the overall picture of what you will do.  Then you organize the next layer of details.  Only after these details are handled will you see the next layer that awaits you, and so forth.  You need time for these details to emerge while you can still arrange to take care of them.

3.  Your organizational plan can strangle the life out of what you are doing if it is too rigid or too detailed. 

You have to find a workable balance between organizational skills and confidence in your own spontaneity and that of others.  For example, what virtue is there in starting a workshop at the exact minute that you claimed you would if two-thirds of your participants are still having lunch?  Or if a beautiful discussion is emerging in a class, does it make sense to cut yourself off in mid-sentence because you had promised to finish the class at four o’clock?  By no means am I saying that the opposite is true, that things left to just flow on and on without any organization provide the ultimate in human experience.  I don’t believe that either.

In closing I’d like to say that I think it takes lots of courage to lead and organize people.  It’s taken me a long time to learn some of the lessons mentioned here.  I hope you who are leaders are learning these lessons without too much difficulty.

[1] Introduction, The Pleasantries of the Incredible Mulla Nasrudin, p. 12, by Idries Shah, E.P. Dutton and Co., 1971.

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