Herding Cats: A Model of Distributed Leadership

How do you recognize leadership in a community that is inherently
highly diverse and geographically distributed? Traditional models of
leadership don’t seem to map well to the Otherkin community. In large
part, the Otherkin community is composed of highly individualistic people,
many of whom have a distinct dislike for traditional authority figures.
When you combine this with the sheer geographical spread of the
community members, the resulting situation presents serious challenges
to a traditional model of leadership.

To make things even more complicated, in my experience the
Otherkin community doesn’t have leaders per se. A sociologist
observing it would see elders, mentors, teachers, and healers: those
people that will take on a leadership role, but don’t have the sort of power
or authority that so often goes hand in hand with leadership. For the
of this essay, I’ll refer to those people as elders.

Leadership in the online Otherkin community reminds me very much
of the development effort among Open Source programmers. In both
cases, the aim and collective goal is development. In the former case,
it’s a handy piece of software. In the latter case, it’s development
of the self. Both require an eye for detail, a good slice of time, and
the work and insight of several people striving for a common goal.

This sort of model of shared growth and development is common to
many non-traditional communities, from programmers to polyamorists to
Pagans. Those who actively appear to be seeking power without putting
time and effort into the community are often ignored or even avoided.
Others who choose to take a more active role in the community without
the power-trip aim are better thought of. If they relate well to
others in the community, provide informed guidance, and give freely of
themselves and their time, they earn respect. Eventually, they come
to be regarded as elders. We don’t necessarily want to grow up to be
just like them, but we admire their insight, the work that they’ve put into
both personal and community development, and the helping hand they provide
when needed.

Elders seem to be elected by public acclaim more than deliberately
seeking out the position themselves. Many of them avoid the spotlight.
They earn respect through their actions. There are no age barriers to
being an elder — the people that I would consider Otherkin elders range
from 20 to 57. Here’s a brief summary of the common threads I’ve seen
in the many elders of the community.

1) Them as does the work, gets the credit. Consistently, the members
of the community who are constantly volunteering and giving of their
own time and efforts are the ones that earn popular respect. These are
the people who are out there organizing gatherings, developing web sites,
coordinating conventions, and administering mailing lists. Work gets
noticed. Good work gets noticed more. Believe me — we do appreciate

2) One Kin elder that I know has a wonderful quote in her .sig line,
to the effect of “Elders are defined by how often they get called at
three in the morning.” This must have been a wry observation based on
personal experience; I know I’ve certainly called her in the middle of
the night for a shoulder to cry on or to share a sudden insight. Most
elders are unselfish enough to help in an emergency, even if it is 3
AM. (Of course, this shouldn’t occur every day. That’s not
leadership; that’s sleep deprivation.)

3) Cooperate, don’t compete. Most of the elders I know are all too
happy to say, “In my opinion” or “I think” rather than “It is this
way”. Sharing and personal insight are valued, and those who believe
that they have the only mainline to the Truth are usually not well
respected. Another common thread I’ve noticed is that elders are
generally quick to acknowledge and compliment the contributions of
others. Those who are out there for an ego trip are usually not well

4) Listen. The last and perhaps the most important characteristic of
the Kin elders I know — they’re great listeners. They’ll let you
express your problem or concern as clearly as you can, and then offer
an opinion if it’s wanted, or sometimes just sympathy and love. This
can make all the difference.

Perhaps the most shocking thing to those accustomed to more
traditional models of leadership is that there is no one main leader.
Ask any Otherkin who he or she looks up to in the community, and
you’ll get a list of names, not just one answer. The talents and the
schedules of the many Kin leaders overlap, and they seem to be happier
that way than being the Grand Poobah. Personally, I think that’s all
to the good.

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