Case Study: Leadership Dysfunction in an Intentional Community

The page The Need for Written Agreements describes several benefits that clear written agreements provide. The following case study, describing an experience of the ICmatch founder, can help illustrate how written agreements are necessary but not sufficient to avoid leadership dysfunction.


My conviction about written agreements came out of my and my teen’s experience in an intentional community, as well as seeing the disillusionment and reactions of those we shared that time with. After 9 months of volunteering every other week, we lived and worked on site for four months. I want to say up front that I strongly believe intentional communities are one of the best hopes we have of either resolving or enduring our growing political, social, and ecological crises. This community was a setting where obviously many members in the past had contributed vast amounts of labor and love.

The following examples are shared in the hope that intentional communities can learn from such examples to self-govern effectively, and community seekers can identify and avoid places where they might be taken advantage of. Communities need to be more effective if this movement is to grow. The headings are listed as what should be done, and the examples are what happens without that.

Provide Markers of Acceptance

Idealism was encouraged, and those members who seemed eager to help were applauded. Many members were pressured to do even more. There were always hints of the benefits of joining permanently, but these were not spelled out. There was no clear process to know when you made it. You were always welcome or unwelcome based on your relationship with the director and your current usefulness to the director. When it was brought up that someone was overworked and had not received benefits for it, residents were blamed for giving too much and for expecting too much. The following description fits how this type of leadership felt.

Some people among us have little capacity for seeing the truth of how they impact others. They live in a fantasy of only being able to see their good sides. They surround themselves with others unwilling to see or speak about their struggles and imperfections. They’re incapable of receiving the truth of their impact on others. They cling to a few simple ideas of what they want the truth to be. The only negative consequence these fantasy-focused community members face is loneliness and a lack of sustainable relationships. Their lack of discernment is dangerous for those closest to them. —Candis Fox

Signal Clear Expectations

In my view they overvalued what they held out as future and current benefits, and undervalued what others contributed. Psychology research tells us this is fairly normal. Time after time, without an up-front discussion about what a fair exchange might look like, both sides ended up feeling the others had been unfair. With a we’ll-talk-about-that-later approach, one could remain hopeful instead of having the hard conversation that would reveal a less attractive reality.

The leadership keeps reeling people in, hoping to find the perfect communitarian tenants, and people eventually leave when they realize there is no sharing of any decision-making that actually matters, no matter how much a hopeful member had invested in cash and/or sweat equity. One member had contributed $10,000. Whether or not she could ever track down the signed document showing she had purchased shares, she didn’t have any agreement about what that buy-in actually afforded her. Further, the practical benefits weren’t worth staying for after the leadership became punitive toward her. When she left, she felt there was no way to realistically re-coup any of it. The leadership was already in two lawsuits that had dragged on for years.

At the ecovillage, the leaders talked a good talk and always came up with excuses for whatever unfairness there seemed to be. They required signed written commitments from residents, but in my experience, they didn’t make clear commitments themselves.

Treat Vulnerable Members Fairly

The leadership could always point in the handbook to how residents fell short, but there were always loopholes and excuses when the leadership fell short. Disillusionment came from the leadership refusing to provide clarity. In their own minds, they could always evade responsibility, because they had promised nothing.

Only a situation where there was a clear agreement allowed us residents to finally agree that a certain situation was definitely not excusable regardless of good intentions. A Brazilian master gardener was paid only $1000 for 7 months of full-time work running the CSA, when the agreement was $500 per month with room and board. Only because there was in this case a defined agreement could anyone definitely say the leadership was not fair about the situation, even tho they had excuses such as pointing to their effort in trying to help the gardener get official residency to qualify for certain funds and immigrate his family. It was eventually known that during the time the gardener’s pay had been on hold, $1000 had been used for the leaders’ child’s hobby. I’m sure the leaders intended to pay eventually, but they didn’t make it a priority. When you have a clear agreement, that’s when you can insist good intentions aren’t enuf, and the contracted payment needs to be the priority.

Provide and Sign Contracts

The current leadership said all the right things, seemed to have all the best intentions and goals, but left people feeling exploited. Why after two decades were there no others permanently on the land that was zoned for occupancy and several houses had been built? There was and is constant churn, a cycling thru of people eager for the promise of connection and an ecologically conscious life. Because of two lawsuits against them, they were unwilling to make signed written contracts again, so this further limited their ability to provide clarity.

Share Decision-making

The leadership consisted of one couple, and primarily one of them made all the decisions. The director talked about the board as a decision-maker, but when I stated my frustration with apparent lack of supportiveness from the mysterious off-site board, the director admitted that all the responsibility was falling on her. The director stated that the community used sociocracy, but this was an intention, not a reality. There were never sufficient numbers who had enuf longevity for a committee and subcommittees to form a functioning sociocracy.

While some saw these leaders as intentionally deceptive and autocratic, I believe they were well intentioned. They simply had normal human tendencies that, because they weren’t open to others’ perspectives, kept them blaming the fact that “people don’t know how to live in community.” We all need others to point out our blind spots, and we need some humility to let in the possibility that others might see our actions as less benevolent than we feel they are. It appears that many leaders are successful initially because they have more than usual confidence in their own ability and perspective. This overconfidence can keep them going thru roadblocks that would cause many to give up the project. However, as an organization grows, this tendency can become problematic. Lack of humility can keep one from recognizing the validity of others’ perspectives. This kept them from realizing that as leaders they had a large part in creating conditions in which residents and volunteers didn’t feel safe from their gossip or retribution.

There are times when a benevolent dictatorship is both helpful and necessary. However, the ideal is to bring in team members who are qualified and willing to share leadership burdens and benefits. Yet their actions made sense from their perspective. They saw themselves as being taken advantage of, and probably they had been at times. They likely were wary of sharing power because there is real risk in doing so. They imagine they were unaware of how to protect themselves from people they might have brought in to share power, who could form an alliance that could override their decisions.

Invoke Calm and Connection

There were times when the director got everyone completely riled up. For example, when there was a windstorm warning or a pig that got loose, she would insist everyone dash into action and prepare for the worst. The member who had been around the longest would simply wander off, unimpressed by the histrionic display. Jeremy Hunter explains the effect this has on groups:

One of the things that I have found over and over and over again is that the groundedness of the leader becomes the groundedness of the group and vice versa. And the opposite, I would say. That when a leader is ungrounded, or that they are emotionally volatile, or that they don’t have a sense of inner calm, that chaos or that distortion becomes the group’s distortion. I have seen it over and over and over again. And then when the leader is grounded, the group becomes calmer. They feel safe. And when the leader is volatile, no one feels safe. And then the follow-along effects on the relationships they have with one another, their capacity to communicate clearly and honestly, down to the result we eventually get is either positively or negatively impacted by that. (para. 44-45)….I see myself as an island of calm and connection…What happens…is that you have amazing off the charts levels of collaboration, a willingness to take risks and trust one another. (para. 54-55)