As someone who became the visible head of an order six months ago, the errors of other visible heads are in my mind, as well as the personal limitations I bring to this job. It combines armchair psychotherapy with the task of an office manager, plus a dash of being a small-scale Pope. A bizarre skill-set is required, and it’s easy to mess up.
MacGregor Mathers is one of the most famous screw-ups, having isolated himself from his adepti and provoked the famous Golden Dawn revolt at the start of the 20th Century. But despite Crowley’s harsh criticism of the man, the Beast was hardly any better, and he left both the O.T.O. and AA. in poor shape at his death. His nominated successor, Karl Germer, was unable to obtain a visa to enter Britain to sort things out, and he was also unhappy presiding over rituals and initiations. It took decades for Thelema to recover as a movement.
Visible or outer heads I’ve known or met have been mercifully better, but the usual range of human failings show up. Some are stuck on ego-trips that they can’t recognise, while others have kept too great a distance between their own inner processes and their fraternities, and have lost a sense of the pulse of things. Other embody the ‘Peter Principle’ in other ways, and move past their level of competence without seeing it.
It’s a given that the visible head has attainment or understanding, but actual levels of skill can be all over the scale. One might be an ace magician or meditator, but clueless about human psychology and interpersonal dynamics. Another might be a marvellous writer with a less than stellar spiritual life. Another might have a profound inner-plane linkage, but imperfect means of expressing it. Another might have all the necessary skills for spiritual leadership, but fail in some way at the heart-level.
To be an outer head is, in fact, close to impossible. The ways to mess up are amazingly varied. The job certainly requires a sense of humour.
Two things that mirror each other occur when an outer head is installed. One is, a ceremony of spiritual linkage is performed to increase the inspiration and sound judgement available to the candidate. The second is that the members in general, and those who join after them, in accepting this individual as their spiritual director, begin to project authority and wisdom onto him or her.
Obviously, such projection is dicey as well as helpful. The positive projections build up a magical aura that has the reflexive effect of bringing more calm, energy and confidence into the fraternity. That’s simple theurgy in action.
The negative sides include the risk of inducing ego-inflation in the leader, as well as some members being unable to process negative projections that build up, as mundane traits emerge or persist in the head. And in a few cases, the leader’s genuine desire to progress up the Tree of Life not being matched with the grace to do so can take the train off the rails.
The problem of leadership is compounded in spiritual groups by the need to maintain and transmit an inner-plane linkage. This is one of the hardest things to pin down in occultism, there being no accepted definition of ‘Third Order contact.’ At different times, it’s been defined as having the Knowledge & Conversation (one’s HGA, presumably, having the phone number of the Invisible College), the ability to speak with either a single Guide (maybe an Archangel) or a triumvirate of discarnate beings (Dion Fortune’s school had this), or the ability to attend more numerous gatherings of Masters, something Crowley indicates he did in his Confessions.
The only true indicator of inner plane contact is that members are continuing to join and progress up the degrees or grades. I know of one fraternity where the visible head drops hints about chats with the exalted beings that guide it, while membership has dwindled noticeably. Perhaps the link remains, but the current isn’t being transmitted or passed down.
As always, “Success is your proof.”
When we began the Temple of Our Lady of the Stars, we deliberately put into our rules a clause that allowed for dismissal of the Warden, subject to due process. Visible heads can, with the best of intentions, lose their way, or suffer debilitating illness, and it’s kinder to all concerned to remove them from authority if that happens. There have to be means of restraining mania or other extreme dysfunctional behaviour. When the flame-wars start online, with the leader repeatedly lambasting his critics’ hypocrisy and magical failings, it’s time to examine what’s gone wrong.
But every adept has to follow his or her star and the bizarre road it will illuminate, and at times this will provoke inner conflicts that can result in actions or judgements that aren’t ideal, but are hardly grounds for removal. Hermetic orders, as is often observed, are not democracies, but meritocracies, if not theocracies. Their magical effectiveness derives from their magical links and chains of links, and disrupting these is a drastic step to take. So, a body of committed advisers needs to be in place as a counterbalance to the visible head: leadership can’t be just a solo performance.
An order’s leader is, as I’ve observed to students in the past, one of the problems to be overcome by members. You won’t and can’t like all that the person is and does, but as the link to the Inner, he or she is a consecrated channel for the well-being of the whole.
An order is a chalice, drawing down and concentrating Light into a spiritual receptacle. While the work of the order continues, and people stumble but recover and learn from their stumbles, all goes well. When the sense of direction slackens or becomes dispersed, it doesn’t. Dion Fortune, in the essay collection Applied Magic, remarks how difficult it is to redirect a group mind once it’s set. Doing so calls for patience and courage.
Even so, every Hermetic fraternity has a best-before date. After that, somebody new must pick up the torch and re-constitute its essence in a new format. It’s a distinguishing mark of Western mystery traditions that the impulse driving them ever seeks new outlets of expression. It’s a prime task of any leader to ensure there are heirs and successors in place who can pick up that impulse, and carry it forward for the next generation of questors. And to do so while bearing in mind that his or her own work, however interwoven with that of the order, is ultimately a separate thing.
As noted above, the job is close to impossible. Both Crowley and Paul Foster Case were told when they wondered why they had been chosen for their separate tasks, that each man was merely the best option available at the time.
And there’s never an ideal one.