Excerpt: 'On Leadership' by Antonia Pont

Art by Oscar Nimmo

Art by Oscar Nimmo


... the sage puts his own person last, and yet it is found in the foremost place; he treats his person as if it were foreign to him, and yet that person is preserved.

—Tao Te Ching (James Legge, trans.) Section 7.


I’m packing the car for a weekend yoga retreat. 90 minutes up the Hume. Two nights and days might not seem a big deal, however, for the people coming along, it may have been months in the planning. Getting time out—when you’re a mother, a CEO, a secondary school teacher, an arts administrator, a therapist, and so on (in other words, when you have your own leadership responsibilities, week in, week out)—is never easy. My colleagues who run the venue—a simple house with big windows, off the grid, near a swathe of state forest, on Taungurong land—like to give me the tally of retreats I’ve taught thus far: 30-plus. A middling beginner, I’d call it.

I’m the retreat teacher, is what I say to new students whom I always phone before they pay their deposit. I’m calling you, I say, so that we can have a chat and you can decide whether you’d be happy to be bossed around by me for 48 hours or so. They laugh when I say that—and I laugh along—but I’m not joking really. That’s exactly what’s going to happen. They’ll get instructions from me for hours on end over the course of their visit. My voice—droning on, and on... I’m giving them a chance to see if they have an allergy to me. To my pitch, intonation, style, or person. Some gut response, which might come out of solution during the phone call and which could save them from a weekend away with a leader they don’t want.

As I get in the car to drive into rural Victoria, I’m also sobbing, distractedly. I know why I’m crying; there’s a good-enough reason for it. Being alive and caring for people—who are mortal, vulnerable. A misunderstanding spliced with the grace of a second chance. Loss and change. The trickles get in my ears and I sleeve them away as I adjust my mirrors. This personal state I’m in? Well, I’m including it—in my little exodus from the city—but it’s not, like, overly interesting. I’m not objectifying my own emotional experience too much. Anticipating the big sky that’s going to open out through the windscreen, I know my state is part of things, but not their centre.

My not-being-overly-interested (in myself) will be relevant for the question of leading. This is not to say I’ll entirely bracket myself (and my responses and reactivities) out. The manoeuvre needs to be subtler than that. The relation of the person in the position of leading to themselves in real-time, in the moments of being in that position, is a very interesting constellation. To know in what ways one matters and in what ways one doesn’t when leading is one of leadership’s most nuanced arts.

I’ve been having a harder time than normal. Not too hard, just harder. Life’s thrown some circumstantial curve balls and I’ve had to be slightly quicker, nimbler. In the background, too, the world’s own shifting. As a practitioner, doing practices which give me regular access to (aspects of) my meta-condition, I know that in the scheme of things I’m wobbling more than I’m used to. Changing lanes, I note this: about to lead and a bit wobbly. Paying attention, I include this fact. When wobbling, it’s best not to go out on a limb. As a result, I might not innovate too much this time ‘round; I’ll draw instead on past experience and steady methodologies. Nothing flashy or experimental. These are the advantages of experience: having it up one’s tear-soaked sleeve.

This retreat’s participants and I will be assuming positions—negotiated in advance—with particular aims for the context we’re going to share, and for a specified duration. The matter is structural; I’ll be in the position of leader. [1] Yes, I also could phrase it that I’m ‘teaching’ the retreat—sure—or that I ‘facilitate’ the shared experience, or that I ‘hold the space’, together with my experienced hosts—yes, all of that. But if we’re not shirking, then stating very explicitly that I lead it, means I take on all the intimations of service, sincerity (not ‘authenticity’) and responsibility that attend this position.

Richard Sennett, in The Fall of Public Man, offers a distinction between what matters in private life, and in public life, respectively. He explains that while ‘authenticity’—say, between you and your partner(s) or among close friends—is appropriate and constructive, this same ‘authenticity’ in public spheres can be downright destructive. [2] To make this very tangible (for my leadership mini-example), it means I won’t be sharing the fact of my recent tears with the participants on this retreat. They don’t need to know that; it won’t assist their resting/learning/retreating in any way. (Or, if I did use it, it would only be for some benefit connected to the content we are working on. It would have to be in a very considered manner—if only as performative lever, as pathos, or illustrative moment, to serve a larger purpose that I keep my eye on, the whole time. The sharing wouldn’t be an impulse for me, but it could be content for them or for our shared aims. Maybe. What Sennett might deem ‘authenticity’ here—sharing to get it off my chest, blurring roles, the narcissist’s watch-me-feel agenda, ‘speaking my truth’—would be selfish, irrelevant and could possibly undermine the productive authority/trust that will allow me to guide the participants. I’m trying to make it possible for them not to have to hold everything together, to access a (head-body-energy) space where they can eschew personality and status—for a couple of days—to see what else might ‘get in’ if they cease that labour of their own public personas and pressures. My personal state—tears, upsetness—doesn’t advance this bigger intention; it’s too sloppy, too much of a tangle. My decision not to present/share this is not inauthentic (because, after Sennett, we are not working the paradigm of authenticity.) What does matter in the relations that will happen this weekend, is that I am sincere within the boundaries of my role. Hence (despite the fact that we’re all wearing what are effectively pyjamas, no make-up, terrible hair, and will regularly fall asleep in each other’s company, possibly fart) our relation to each other here is still a public, not private, one.

1st Principle: Leadership is a position and a practice.

To reiterate: this role—my leadership mini-example—as retreat leader, has very little to do with me as a personality. It is structural and only remains lively, functional—as I see it—if I practise what it demands of me: consistently, often, seriously. To refer to the next bit of the opening quote: the sage as someone indifferent to their personal and private ends. For two days, I will occupy this assigned position. In it, I’ll set in motion various techniques and proven methodologies to enable eight people to do a lot less, and to do things differently to how they normally might—to move their bodies more intelligently, to rest inside the upholstered structure of a quasi-monastic schedule, to experiment with constrained connectivity (if they want) and with silence (the subtraction of human—mostly phatic—speech), to play at the old arts of alternating resting with curated, non-injurious exertion, and to ramble in the climes of uncensored rumination. Free-associating inside yourself. Getting bored. Involuntary memory. The marvels of edgeless pondering, of squishy, loopy dreaminess. Of unchecked (and necessarily unbehaved) rage. Glimpses of the nano-sublime. Chewing through all that undigested life and relentless stimulus that’s been repeating on you lately. Burrrp. All of that.

As I merge with the Friday peak-hour traffic on the way to retreats, I often contemplate quietly (but actually it’s more wordless than that, a kind of bodily preparation) how I’m going to work at keeping the people who are risking being bossed around by me (and by my practice tradition) safe. My motto is: a boring retreat is a good retreat. Nothing Happening often means plenty happening. My job as the teacher is not to try to get gratifying or salacious feedback about what people are experiencing. Not to milk drama out of the space. It’s incredibly dangerous to seek to nudge people towards having ‘big’ or ‘deep’ feelings or to make them show (you) big feelings, as if that spectacle would be a sign of anything worthwhile. Feelings are people’s own business. They may decide to share them, but prompting such a sharing is risky at best, often a little manipulative and/or desperate. It confuses an understanding about the register at which the ‘work’ is happening and indulges the delusion that it’s somehow about or that it involves the teacher. It’s... uh, a bit gossipy. Transference notwithstanding, the teacher (leader, not celebrity) is a mechanism that enables. Also a person, yes, but in their role of leading, they are mostly serving the situation, not themselves. Perhaps a whimsical lover is a Very Good Time; a whimsical leader is not. That said, to be in the position of leader is also to be relieved of oneself for a time, of one’s own petty and utterly temporary preoccupations. That can be its reward. Yes, but mostly...

2nd Principle: Leadership is a service role.

Among other things (such as vision, invention, problem-solving, artful cooperation, timely responsiveness), leadership serves safety. [3] ‘Safe’ in my example is shorthand for conditions in which a worthwhile experience is not afterwards costly—to the participant’s life, time, energy-levels, future continuation. The leader, I reckon, is almost wholly responsible for the atmosphere of safety that pervades (or doesn’t) a shared context. Big call? Nah, I think it’s often true. At the very least, they’re responsible for not making the context for which they’re responsible more unsafe than it already is, which is a feat in itself and not to be underestimated. As safe as possible = less fear. In best case scenarios, the participant will have a constructive and steady experience, with spaces for being creative, for feeling, thinking, giving and wanting. Perhaps they’ll take something practical home with them—a technique, a concept, an intention: a ‘next thing’ for exploring or playing with, fodder for invention, for fulfilment, more energy for their own roles of responsibility. (People often reach big life decisions while on retreat; I always advise them—as I was once advised—to wait at least two weeks before acting on the decision. Don’t shave your head, leave your marriage, and relocate to Tibet... give it 14 days minimum.)

Furthermore, at some level people know what they are doing and what they want to experiment with. We have a nose—don’t we?—for the trajectories of our lives. It’s just that sometimes all the ambient noise drowns out this reliable information. What I don’t want them to take home is a trace of a difficult interpersonal thang, with me, or from the group. My leading them, then, is not about colonising their brains or body, or sitting back passively if someone in the group is demanding too much airtime. (As leader, my role is to protect the context that contains us in the practising. The leader as a Space-Maker, not -Taker.) I minimise myself while giving them enough to hold on to, so as to accompany a transition, a shift of mode, that isn’t really for the faint-hearted. The latter needs quietness and structure and so, neither I, nor any of their peers, should be so loud or unruly that this can’t happen.

You see, a retreat can go either way. People have gone off on spiritual journeys for millennia, seeking out teachers, groups and scenes—and while they might encounter God, themselves, their inner-child, hope or insight, they can also come back violated, interfered with, disturbed, indoctrinated, bullied, or otherwise harmed. I’ve known groups where I was positively unsafe; I’ve known others—usually involving an impressive/steady person, who made a stand when the occasion demanded it—where I learned I was safer than expected.

I heard somewhere that a considerable percentage of people are in therapy because of experiencing non-benign group processes (probably with no, or bad, leadership)—falling foul to interpersonal/professional dynamics gone ugly: the stealthy gathering of unfavour, the swill of jousting for position and recognition, the ickiness of non-consensual domination, or expedient (ends-justified) intimidation. (For others, a common story, they end up in therapy due to exposure to the risks involved in that group-of-groups, everyone’s favourite mini-cult—benign or less so—commonly referred to as: Your Family of Origin.)

I have this opinion—and please, disabuse me of it—that groups where no one takes the lead, but where nevertheless someone is coming to dominate by-the-by, without properly assuming that position (and its heavier obligations)—or where several jostle for domination among themselves, with everybody else having to look on—are unfocused and unsafe. These spaces can produce anxieties of a lower or higher degree. Not that I don’t also love to float the fantasy of a consensual “we’ll all work it out together” thing. I have known some gorgeous dynamics like that, which usually involve a lot of steady, mature, considerate, awake people pulling off deft interpersonal choreographies.

Mostly, however, groups of a certain size can exist quite generatively with a kind of leader, or several people leading in different moments when different expertise is called for. This or these leaders might be distinguished from any kind of master. Leading to serve and not ‘putting anyone to work’. The leader is someone who has enough energy to also watch out for the sustainability/generativity of the context.

To be a leader is both [to be adept in relevant content/expertise] + [to attend to, to cultivate wholesomely the context where this plays out]. Leadership is always a little bit meta.

There are classically two kinds of pseudo-leading style that we’ve all seen. The first obvious kind is the Dominator. A dominator enjoys the position itself way too much—they are extracting recognition. They might, for example, want you to see them in a particular light and to make you see them in this controlled way. (The heart-breaking shadow of this is the dominator’s suspicion/conviction—perhaps—that they need to force you, that you wouldn’t get there on your own.)

The obvious second kind can be dubbed the Fake Friend. This ‘leader’ can’t bear the solitude that is part of serious leadership and the incidental anonymity that it can entail. What I mean here is that the leader can’t always be “seen” or personally “known” in some of the ways we often long for, as human beings. In other words, some parts of a Being-Seen are arguably mutually exclusive with the position.

There’s also a third kind that I’ve encountered on occasion, which I’ll add to these. I’m risking calling them the enfant terrible. A kind of genius who tends to take up a lot of space in the group (which they effectively dominate due to their virtuosity), but who also doesn’t want to grow up; they want to be ‘in the gang’, both affirmed as belonging but also as different in being astonishing and special. They are therefore emotionally quite demanding of those who are in the group, and they dominate without quite leading. It’s not the worst model, but it remains problematic and (often) opaquely irritating.

Arguably, the fake friend and the enfant, for different reasons, tend to end up disavowing their centrality while milking the scene (where they could lead, but don’t) for their own secret (unconscious) or less secret gratification. They may also fuck off when things go pear-shaped, saying things like: we all had equal chance to speak here. who me? we are all co-responsible... Without explicitly intending it, they can still extract a lot—of admiration, anxiety, compliance, fawning, status &c.—from the other members.

Where the Dominator doesn’t give a shit about you (except that you are crucial for their position—you are their Recognition Kiosk), the other two types often talk the saccharine talk of non-hierarchy, while drinking up your adoration, pedestalling, and vulnerable sycophancy, without minding any fall out, or your long-term psychic limp. They saunter off, able-bodied, spouting some more Politics of Horizontality. They’re already somewhere else, scheming towards the next rung. They may have also hindered the group’s members from developing much trust between themselves—that is, they’ve insisted on remaining the Node Through Which All Relationality Passes. They disavow hierarchy’s workings, while at the same time lapping up a very particular kind of approval and behaving their way into being the always-centre-of-attention. Usually with a salary, or a fan base. All these pseudo-leaders, arguably, don’t quite lead because leading—as I’m framing it—is work that shouldn’t gratify too much. It’s service and less likely to go sour if you aren’t extracting personal kicks.

Addictions: one can come to have a psychic dependency on being The Main Event.

I say this because many people think they want the mantle of leadership (no kidding, AP), but what they probably want is just a bunch of status and power to compensate for the blind spots and psychic wounds they’ve accumulated. Reassurance, validation and (more awfully) the dark glee of determining what happens to other people—not from a space of love or tenderness, gravity and shared necessity, but because it’s a kind of Bad Remedy, because people can get a bloated appetite for power/receiving attention. I don’t know about you, but I continue to encounter a disavowal of hierarchy (and the rejection of a nuanced notion of leadership) accompanied by the ravenous taking up of covert structural chances to control others and to savour Recognition’s bolshy mouthfeel. This is really the pits.



[1] I’m not in essence or naturally destined for that position. It is not something ‘deep within me’, true and so on.

[2] This seminal work of Sennett’s is from the mid-70s, long before Twitter, before Insta—it would be another essay to think through these platforms and their behaviours (rewarded and not) in light of his framing.

[3] Safety has myriad different context-dependent meanings, of course. Safety when being led to break out from an unjust scenario of imprisonment looks different to safety when we are doing lying-down relaxation. Safety in therapy looks different to safety at the family dinner table, &c.


This above is an excerpt from Issue 45 of The Lifted Brow. To read it in full, get your copy here.

Antonia Pont is a poet, essayist, practitioner, and theorist, living on Wurundjeri land. She teaches and supervises in Writing and Literature at Deakin university. In 2009, she founded Vijñāna Yoga Australia, where she continues to teach and practise. She is a columnist for The Lifted Brow and author of You Will Not Know in Advance What You’ll Feel (2019).

Oscar Nimmo is an illustrator, animator and occasional muralist based in Sydney. You can find his work at www.i2th.com.au and instagram: @oscarnimmo

Excerpt: 'On Leadership' by Antonia Pont