Posted on August 27, 2009

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This entry is part 4 of 6 in the series The defunct'ness of the polyamory movement

Series Disclaimer: This series is the result of conversations that I’ve had with fellow poly leaders, mixed with my own thoughts, experiences, and observations. While it seems that a lot of us have similar experiences and thoughts, these writings do not represent the beliefs of poly leaders as a whole.  These writings are not meant to target specific individuals or organizations, but instead show how “the system” is defunct and needs a lot of TLC and fixing.

As I previously mentioned, we can apply the 80/20 rule to polyamory groups and organizing.  Of the people that identify with the group, only a minority within that group are “active” – meaning they regularly use the discussion forum or attend events.  Of that subset, a small percentage of the active members are responsible for the majority of the time and physical resources needed to keep the group functioning. Not surprisingly, these people are also those that take on the label of “leader”, or have it thrusted upon them by the group at large.

Why the heck do we – the few, the labored, the burnt out – take so much upon ourselves, and how can we stop this viscous cycle from continuing?  I will offer insight on this by providing four mantras that poly leader-types should repeat and apply to their lives.

What is leadership?

Before we start delving into the problems that some of us are having as leaders, let’s first take a look at what it means to be a leader.

“A leader is someone who can get things done
through other people”

- Warren Buffet

Leadership is the ability to take a collective of individuals, develop them into something that’s greater than they are currently (a team), and influence them to accomplish something far greater than what they could have done on their own.

Why do we struggle with this?  Leadership is not a talent that any of us are born with.  It is a skill, combined with multiple virtues, that need to be developed over time.

An important skill in being a leader is self-knowledge.  When we have a clear understanding of our beliefs and values, we can discipline ourselves so that our thoughts, feelings, and actions stay in alignment in those. When we live and lead with conscious transparency – when people see our beliefs and reflected in the way we act and present ourselves – others are more willing to trust us and connect with us.

When leader/follower situations go awry, it is a good idea for the leader to first look to themselves to see what they may need to change or do differently to remedy the situation before placing the responsibility for change upon the followers.  Usually, when these types of problems occur, either our motivations were not communicated well enough or our actions were not in line with our values and beliefs (or those of our followers).

Let’s look at a couple of examples of this type of dysfunction:

Martyrdom: Giving Too Much

If you are a leader in a polyamory group, I want you to repeat the following:

I have personal boundaries regarding my time, resources, and emotional commitment.

We establish boundaries with regards to our individual relationships.  Being a poly leader is like being in a relationship.  If you are going to function without burning out or going bankrupt, you need to establish boundaries.  If you’re clearing your bank account and burning the midnight oil to get stuff done while the rest of “the group” provides little assistance - and you are unhappy with this dynamic -  then something’s wrong. If you allow this type of scenario to repeat itself multiple times, and you’re unhappy with it almost every time, then something is very wrong. Remember, the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over again, and expecting different results. ;)

Why do we do this to ourselves?

Some of us have difficulty delegating tasks to those that we lead.  There are several possible reasons for this:

  • Fear of power: In a world where we see people using their power over others in abusive ways (where the leader gains a lot and the followers are harmed by what happens), the thought of being the person in power can be scary! Some people distrust those in power because they fear that person will abuse it for self-serving purposes. You may not trust yourself to be in a position of power, and may avoid using it to influence others to follow you.
  • Fear of loss of control: When you delegate a task to someone else, you give up control of the final outcome to the other person.  If trust was not established ahead of time, this could lead to a lot of anxiety that the other person will take longer than expected, do the task poorly, or not do it at all. Scary.
  • Guilt: Some of us struggle at juggling work, family, friends, and other obligations. We feel overwhelmed because we already give too much.  The other people on our team may appear to be equally as busy.  Because we feel overwhelmed in our own lives, we may see their busyness and assume that they feel as overstretched as we do.
  • Ego: Some people believe that they can do the job better than anyone else.  By hoarding all of the work and effort, the rest of the team loses out on opportunities to demonstrate their own strengths and abilities through contribution towards the endeavor.

Whatever our self-talk is saying, we need to overcome it and establish personal boundaries on our time and resources.  By doing so, we not only keep our sanity (and financial well-being), but it allows us to make a choice on what types of things are important to us and focus on those tasks, rather than try to do everything ourselves.

Fear of  Failure

Let’s say that your endeavor was to plan a party. It’s now the proverbial 11th hour, the guests are going to be arriving in a few hours, stuff’s half done, and you aren’t able to rally enough troops to get everything done that you originally planned.  You end up rolling up your sleeves and burning the midnight oil in order to get as much accomplished as you can.  I would show up, see the people hanging out at the party, and think everything is ok… until I see you huddled in the corner looking very burnt out.  When I ask you why you look so exhausted, you’d probably mention how little sleep you got the night before or how much money you spent at the last minute. I’d sigh, shake my head, and ask you why you pushed yourself so hard.

You’d look at me strangely and respond, “What if I didn’t do it? Stuff wouldn’t have gotten done!”

To this I would respond, “How would it have mattered if that specific piece didn’t get done?”

To rephrase this into mantra #2: “It is okay to cut losses for the sake of my own sanity.”

Some of us have a mental image in our heads on what conditions we need for our endeavor (a party, project, etc.) to be successful.  Sometimes, we set pretty high bars, and refuse to compromise with ourselves.  While high standards are awesome, sometimes we need to be realistic in what we can accomplish.  Sadly, some people see this type of bar lowering – even if it doesn’t matter in the grand scheme of things – as a form of failure.  Most of us are prone to loss aversion, the fear of failure and the avoidance of it.

One of the books that I’m currently reading, Sway: The Irresistible Pull of Irrational Behavior, analyzes specific examples of human behavior that defy logic.  One of those is how people will dig themselves into deeper holes in order to avoid a situation of failure, thus making the final outcome even worse.

The book provides the example of an auction done among college students on the first day of class. The item being auctioned was a $20 bill. The conditions of the auction was that bidding would increase by increments of $1 each, and that the winner would receive the $20 bill, but the second place bidder would have to pay for it.   This auction scenario has been repeated multiple time. This experiment has been repeated multiple times, and the highest the $20 bill was sold for was $204.  This wasn’t your average group of college students, either. They were attendees of a negotiations class at the Harvard Business School.

The book goes on to list several real-life examples where people, including political leaders, found themselves in losing situations and chose to put more effort into trying to “fix” things, which continually made the situation worse.

When we hit that crisis point where an important task isn’t going to be done on time, instead of making the personal sacrifice to get it done, we need to first determine if it is truly necessary or something that was simply nice to have.  Think back to the 80/20 rule that I mentioned yesterday – was the ball that was dropped part of the 20% of the stuff that was important, or was it trivial?  If it fell into the “trivial” bucket, the world won’t end if it doesn’t get done ;)

My wants vs. your wants: A difference in values

When it comes to your volunteer work and donations for the poly group, are you really doing it for them… or are you doing it for yourself and including them as a byproduct of your efforts?  This leads to the third mantra that I want you to say after me:

I will not mask my “wants” as the group’s “needs”.

To give an example:  Let’s say that members of your poly group start to throw their own house parties.  Sounds simple, right? Let’s say that in doing so, they typically invite the same mix of people. Still, no big deal, right?

Let’s say that they pool of people that attend these parties make up a small percentage of the group.  Where some may see a happy and involved group of people,  you see a larger group of people that aren’t being included and have no way with which to socialize with each other. You go out of  your way to create open social events to encourage people to mingle with each other. It’s met with some success, though the majority of regular attendees appear to come from the already active subset of members.

Here’s the disconnect in this scenario. The “you” in this example viewed the situation with the tinted glasses of your own personal values (in this instance, valuing the inclusion of others).  Those values tinted a neutral situation (some people attending social gatherings and some not) into a judgment of inclusion and exclusion.

People that over-contribute based on this line of judgment project their own values upon the group.  They assume that because they see a perceived deficit in the group, the other group members not only see this as a problem as well, but one that needs to be fixed.

Why do some people devote so much time and energy towards an organization whose problems may, in actuality, only exist inside the volunteer’s head?  They may have made another assumption about the group that they simultaneously lead and serve.

This leads to my final mantra, which will introduce the next post in this series

The cake community may be a lie…

Tomorrow I will show how an organization doesn’t necessarily equal a “community”.  I will also show the differences between a community and other named groupings of people with shared beliefs and interests.

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1 Comment

  1. [...] subset – those that end up with the label of “leader” – feels compelled to push themselves to the point of burnout to provide for the larger [...]

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