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From a Lone Nut Into a Movement

I came across this video by Derek Sivers recently, and I found it helpful in thinking about how leadership functions in a movement. I wondered also whether there might be some lessons that we could glean as we look at how we as Quakers might reclaim the movement ethos that accompanied the dynamic energy and growth of the early Friends.

What stands out to me most about Derek’s video is its assertion that our tendency to glorify our most visible and outspoken leaders may be misguided. Certainly, we owe a lot to the first people to stand out and take risks for the sake of a new way of seeing and living in the world. They are the pioneers, and without their ridiculous boldness, there could be no movement. Nevertheless, as Derek points out, one person dancing to the beat of a different drummer is easily dismissed as a “lone nut.” It is the first followers that lend legitimacy to a pioneer. They transform the lone risk-taker into the nucleus for a movement.

Those who are first to join in with a pioneer leader take on almost as much risk as the pioneer herself. There are plenty of lone nuts out there, each with a the seeds of a movement in their message. But many of them really are nuts. The first followers, the first people to join forces with a pioneer leader on the margins, risk being ridiculed themselves for joining with the lunatic fringe. One person who insists on being different is written off as crazy, but a small group of markedly different people is often labeled a “cult.”

If the first collaborators are right, however, and this lone nut is less crazy than she seems, they will be able to play a critical role in the invitation of other, slightly less daring people to join in the movement. The more people who take part in the movement, the less social risk participation entails. Eventually, as Derek points out, a movement may become so widespread that it is more socially awkward to remain on the outside than it is to join.

We as Christians are ultimately followers of the ultimate lone nut, Jesus. How can we courageously follow him, even when doing so will put our relationships, livelihood and reputation at risk? How can we invite others to join in the movement of love, mercy and justice that he inspires?

Note: In email correspondence with Derek following this post, I learned that Derek is the author of the words of the video, but not the videographer himself. Credit for the video goes to dkellerm.

  • I think of the early Quaker movement. George Fox was an itinerant preacher for years without any movement forming – a classical “lone nut.” A critical time appears to have been when he came to the Fells and Margaret became effectively the first follower (at least the first one recorded to have done anything to really forward what Fox was preaching). After that, it blossomed quite quickly.

  • I can’t help thinking about the context. It has to be right. Lone dancing man wouldn’t have gotten a field of people dancing if they weren’t already there, mellowed by the music and stoned out of their mind (yes I’m making an assumption here but I think it’s a safe bet).

    When I did the “1652 Country” tour of the area where the Quaker movement first took hold, what struck me wasn’t the loner George Fox but the crowd of people already on the field. Yes Fox famously preached to “a thousand” seekers on Firbank Fell but they weren’t there to see him. He was a nobody who’d just gotten to town a few days before. This was a organized (and large!) gathering of independent spiritual seekers. Some of them had even started organizing themselves into monthly meetings. Fox gave a name and identity to this movement but they were already dancing. I suspect movements less about founders and even first-followers than about the context that makes a people ready.

  • Sounds to me like “both-and.” A movement needs both a prepared context (eg a group of ready-and-waiting people) and a lone nut (preferably with a worthwhile/rightly ordered message).

    Liz Opp, The Good Raised Up

  • @Bill I agree that Margaret Fell is an excellent example of a courageous “first follower.”

    @Martin You make a good point that conditions have to be right for a leader to make any impact. In my experience working among Friends, I have tended to think of myself as a catalytic element; rather than imagining that I cause movement, I instead perceive that I am sometimes able to serve as a catalyst to unleash the dynamic potential that is already latent in a situation or community. A catalyst, of course, is useless without the right conditions for it to have an effect.

    @Liz I agree. As I mentioned in response to Martin’s comment, a leader can be understood as being a catalyst, unable to effect change without suitable conditions. However, suitable conditions can be present and yet there may be no positive change, all because of a lack of positive leadership. This is why it is so critical for each of us to wait on God’s guidance, individually and in community. God knows how this whole universe fits together, and the Holy Spirit will move us into our proper position, if we submit to its guidance.

  • In Quaker contexts, I’ve observed that a clerk has about a 10% effect on the discernment & groundedness of a group. That is to say that a good clerk can boost a group by about 10% and a really bad clerk can sink it 10%. A really solid body of Friends practically self-clerks itself and even the most bungling clerk so that even the most bungling clerk would have little effect. A less solid body can get away from even the most grounded clerk. Over time I suspect both clerk and body affect each other.

    Of course, I made up the percentage. This isn’t scientific. But it’s been a helpful way for me to think about the relationship between clerking, leadership and the gathered body. This is how I see Liz’s “Both-And” playing out in our sort of religious circles.

  • In our western culture,leadership is usually a form of ego driven individualism. The capitalist individualism that we have been raised in cultivates an aspiration to separate ourselves from each other, the earth, etc, let go our attachment to the group and foster instead an attachment to things, dreams, goals, desires. The idea and practice of leadership, in this context, requires/fosters separation from the group, a leader is an individual standing alone, completely or partially separated from the main group, sometimes “a beacon to others” but not attached to the group and whose inspiration comes largely from “elsewhere”, beyond and out of reach of the majority, which is why they are often “misunderstood” and seen as mad or heretical. He (usually) is seen to a greater or lesser degree as “The lone wolf”, the brave David against Goliath, the father, the one holding the responsibility, the scapegoat, the rebel, the odd one out, the heretic, the gift, the minister, etc, etc. Ultimately, this leader is characterised by their separation, distance and difference from the group. This idea of leadership defies equality and fosters deference, child/parent dynamics, rescuer/saviour as is often experienced in the workplace, the cult of celebrity, in religious cults, etc. One could say that the conventional view of a leader is like the embodiment of a creed. They are a finished product.

    In our culture, forms of human expression and insight derived from our experience through groups, community, etc, are usually demeaned in our society and go largely unexplored.

    In contrast to mainstream society, Friends place the group at the centre of our spiritual practice, with individuals seen as bringing a unique contribution to the group discernment. This is the heart of our Quaker Way. In this context, what the wider world calls “individual leadership”, Quakers may hear as an individual speaking something that has emerged out of the group process, the gathered stillness, contributed for all to share and learn from, and be enriched by, accessed through a deepening of connection to each other, rather than through separation. Far from being “out there” and alone, separated from the group, the gathering seeks to cultivate in the individual a deep sense of connection and relationship. I experience this as “a warmth of humanity”. In this, the Quaker way reflects the imperative at the heart of the Judeo/Christian/Islamic traditions; The 1st commandment, to love god and the 2nd, to love thy neighbour as thyself. Quakers seek relationship. The on-going concerns of individuals and the dynamics within the group who are gathered are made secondary to the experience in the moment. It is not possible to split people into categories of good and bad, damned and saved, betters and lowers, leaders and followers, because the actions of each person are a reflection of an aspect of the whole group and their process together. Responsibility for what happens in Meetings for Worship is shared by all participants. Early Quakers did not abolish the ministry, they abolished the laity. We are all ministers and what happens in Meeting is not under any one individual’s control. It is a deep expression of connectedness which fosters a very different idea of leadership. Very different attitudes and behaviours between people: A sense that we are separate and different to each other and part of humanity at the same time, knowing that the whole is profoundly more than the sum of its parts. The lack of a creed amongst Quakers is not because we desire liberal inclusiveness, but because true insight comes from the experience of being in a group, of waiting and listening, of striving to live with others in both unity and diversity. This promotes a sense of leadership that works with and through our relationships and is fluid, transforming and constantly evolving and collective in its nature. It is personally very challenging, which is probably why Quakers are few in number.

  • Anonymous

    Bear in mind that Adolf Hitler was a “lone nut” for a long time. Also that followers must exercise discrimination and discernment (while remaining Kindlers, not Snuffers). We do not want another Naylor incident. Perhaps discussion could include the role of Elders in midwifing radical change see

    Vernon White: Britain YM

  • @Cotswold Hello! Thanks for sharing your thoughts on leadership with us.

    I agree with your claim that a Friends understanding should not elevate leaders above the group, and I like what you say about the heart of our practice as Friends being listening in community. While the wider society tends to elevate the individual above the group, artificially separating one from the other, I do not believe that Quakers have ever had this as their understanding of leadership. I believe that there is a Friends understanding of leadership, and that it is essential for us to rediscover and claim it for today.

    I believe that Friends have largely abandoned the apostolic leadership model that was demonstrated by Fox and other early Friends. This leadership of the Valiant Sixty was based on the shared discernment of both the individual and the community. While the individual was not raised above the group, neither was the group raised above the individual. Instead, all Friends sought to hear together the voice of Christ in their midst, and collectively become obedient to it. Often, Christ would speak through a specific individual – such as George Fox to the Seekers at Firbank Fell – and the community responded to God’s authority speaking through this vessel, this leader.

    I suspect that the real reason that there are so few Friends today is that, for the past three hundred years or so, Friends have retreated from the bold, Spirit-led leadership that characterized our early years. Instead, we have often chosen to turn in on ourselves, slowly withering away under successive rounds of disownment, schism and navel-gazing.

    My prayer is that we will return to a model of leadership where inspired individuals can speak God’s word and the community will respond with tenderness and willingness to change. Leadership must be a conversation between individuals and their communities, and ultimately it must be Christ’s authority that we submit ourselves to, both individually and as the Church.

    @Vernon You are absolutely right that followers must exercise discernment in whom they follow, and that the role of elders is crucial in a Friends model of leadership. It is interesting that you bring up James Nayler: His was a case of a prominent Friends leader being led astray by his followers. More than anything, Nayler’s tragic case is a warning that sometimes our immediate community is mistaken in its discernment, and we do well to be open to guidance from the wider Church.