Non-Esoteric Resources for Leadership in Spiritual Organizations and Groups

Author’s note: I originally composed this as a general article. It is not aimed or directed at any particular situation, but touches on practical methods that work in my experience. Please feel free to contact me with questions, comments or corrections. – James Brown, Board of Directors of the Institute for Hermetic Studies


EIGHTBALL (to JOKER): “Now you might not believe it but under fire Animal Mother’s one of the finest human beings in the world. All he needs is somebody to throw hand grenades at him the rest of his life.”   – From, Stanley Kubric’s movie Full Metal Jacket


Mark Stavish once told me that part of the difficulty with New Thought lies in the tendency of modern audiences to lack the determined, willful values of their original stoic Victorian or pre-war American counterparts. Like Kubric’s character “Animal Mother” in peacetime, modern occult communities, far removed from their tumultuous beginnings, tend to attract those who are somewhat culturally ill-adapted to successfully manage their organizations, whose structures were originally created by people possessed of a cultural skill set suited to the demands of a different, perhaps less forgiving era. This missing skill set has less to do with the occult curriculum or the psychic/magical abilities of teachers, and more to do with the “soft-skills” of management and leadership.

Secular businesses and religious organizations share many of the same issues. They may be skilled at their core competency — whether it’s fixing pipes or programming microcode — but they often cannot profitably run a business or successfully cooperate with others. To help with this I will recommend a few books along with a small bit of practical advice. The common skill-gaps that I will be addressing are:

  • The cultivation of ‘Positive Indifference’ (as coined in Kabbalah for Health & Wellness) to smooth over emotional conflicts
  • Organizational Focus and Clarity
  • Building Effective Leadership
  • Succession Planning

Full disclosure: I don’t have much esoteric leadership experience outside of my work within a couple of small esoteric groups and my time on the IHS board. I am basing these recommendations on my secular leadership experience. I do not pretend to know or even understand all of the solutions to potential situations, but I can suggest places that may help readers find those solutions for themselves, while providing a sense of informed urgency to address aspects of leadership and management in need of development.



While I would prefer to recommend a specific book like Strategic Planning for Christian Esoteric-Masonic Organizations, which (unfortunately) does not exist, I will instead suggest some existing alternatives which will include the following characteristics:

  • Is appropriate for small to medium sized groups
  • Has “Low-overhead” (light on theory, jargon, and are practical or immediately applicable)
  • Something with which I have experienced positive results, both personally and professionally, in my esoteric work.

Before I give you my “non-esoteric” recommendations, I would be remiss by not recommending Mark Stavish’s book Light on the Path. Besides its value for anyone looking to create an esoteric curriculum, the article entitled “Some Advice to Group Leaders and Mentors” in the supplementary materials alone is worth the cover price.


Albert Ellis’s book A New Guide to Rational Living is my first recommendation. I was first introduced to this book by the writings of the late Joseph Lisiewski.  Published in 1961, the book serves as a layman’s self-help guide through Ellis’s “Rational Emotive Therapy” (RET). Inspired by the tenants of classical stoic philosophy, Ellis synthesized RET to give results more immediate than those he was finding with pure analysis. Unlike many self-help books, it does not promise happiness, but offers instead simple methods to help remove the “catastrophization” of hardship.

While the book is focused on individual application rather than a group-oriented practice, the cultivation of positive indifference is our first line of defense against something called “paradrama” (a term coined by psychic researcher and author George Hansen, and often borrowed by Mark Stavish) within magical groups. As occultists, we often assume something like positive indifference will be an inevitable product of our path and work. This may be the case from an academic approach, but the recommendation here is for something more intuitive, that is to say, immediate until those positive returns fully manifest.  Why RET instead of going straight to the source with Stoicism? Stoic authors such as Seneca are generally easy to read and understand, and can be of great value, but, as per the basic criteria, RET gives some simple exercises and only concerns itself with the most direct aspects of ‘positive indifference’ found in Stoicism.



Like many of you, I have seen esoteric organizations who work with an expanding array of techniques, systems, ideas, community functions and identities. However, it is possible for even the most accomplished among us to get lost among the trees while looking for the proverbial forest. My next recommendation, Essentialism by Greg McKeowin, addresses this risk. The word “simplicity” often conjures up people in yoga postures or hip up-cycled postmodern furniture, but the book’s subtitle “The Disciplined Pursuit of Less” betrays its essentially martial, Geburah-infused character. McKeowin provides research, practical advice and numerous examples from a variety of figures, in business and art, on living (and working) as an Essentialist. There is even a section in the back for leadership and managing “essentialist teams”.

He defines his approach as thus: “The way of the Essentialist means living by design, not by default. Instead of making choices reactively, the Essentialist deliberately distinguishes the vital few from the trivial many, eliminates the nonessentials, and then removes obstacles so the essential things have clear, smooth passage. In other words, Essentialsim is a disciplined, systematic approach for determining where our highest point of contribution lies, then making execution of those things almost effortless (italics added)”

One last note: do not buy an abridged version or summary of this work (or listen to the audiobook at 2x speed). In fact, if you find that you or your organization are in need of clarity and focus, I would encourage you to read the whole work in small segments, underline, and then perform Lectio Divina (divine reading) on one or two of the passages or concepts that stand out to you. Meditate on them and allow them to write ‘simplicity’ upon your heart.


I have to be honest, I dreaded including this next book. I would have much preferred to recommend some classic work about leadership, maybe something from John Maxwell or even more historical and “perennial” like Winston Churchill. Yet despite the hype and cultural fetishism of Navy Seals in recent years, I feel the principles put forth in this book are probably the best example of practical and foundational leadership for small to medium sized groups (and has been very helpful for me personally within my organizations). The book is Extreme Ownership – How Navy Seals Lead and Win by Jocko Willink and Lief Babin.

Critical principles are given in each chapter, alternating between military and business examples from their deployment in Ramadi, Iraq and their business experiences through their consulting firm Echelon Front. Some of you may be asking, “What on earth do retired Navy Seal business consultants have to with esoteric groups? Could these groups be more different?” To this the authors would reply:

“We hope to dispel the myth that military leadership is easy because subordinates robotically and

blindly follow orders. On the contrary, U.S Military personnel are smart, freethinking individuals – human beings. They must literally risk life and limb to accomplish the mission. For this reason they must believe in the cause for which they are fighting. They must believe in the plan they are about to execute, and most important, they must believe in and trust the leader they are asked to follow.”

Faith in the mission, the plan and one’s leadership is foundational for teachers and students if they are to have longevity and success on the path. I would ask that esoteric groups pay special attention to three principles given; “de-centralized command”, “leading up and down the chain of command” and “extreme ownership”.


Succession planning is not just about who will fill the executive role when she or he passes on. It is about having continuity in your organization for all posts and positions, whether they are keeping the books (accounting that is), managing initiations, handling the email lists, or responsible for some other essential function. People move on, they have crises or (God forbid) go on vacation, and your organization needs the resiliency to move forward in these times.

I have been vocal in my own businesses that I fully support maternity leave, sabbaticals, and other benefits of away-time, and have done my best to encourage this. During these extended absences other members of the organization must step up and do the work they normally don’t. Furthermore, absences require members to formalize and write down important details, give access to crucial physical and informational resources (showing good faith and trust), and cross-train others so that no single person is unduly essential for the survival of the organization.

In organizations where the duties might rotate (like Freemasonry) the need to create continuity is more immediate and clear, but the same need applies in the most rigid of hierarchical organizations as well. In more “egalitarian” organizations, the informal roles (the people who always end up performing certain roles, because of expertise, resources or habit) also need this cross-training. Whether the understudies will ever need to fill the role again or not, they will at least have insight into how things operate ’behind the curtain’.

Regardless of the structure of your organization, a working succession plan requires cultivation of leadership and trust throughout. In sports terminology, having ready leaders creates “bench strength” that others can rely on when inevitable disruption occurs. I feel that some of the pain I witnessed in esoteric groups during the succession of executive members could have been avoided if the plan for continuity was made clear, not only to the highest leadership, but also communicated in advance throughout the organization.

Leadership is a union of opposites, it is the way of Tiphareth, or the power of the Sun. Its power lies in proper humility and its downfall is overweening pride. It comes from the unvarnished understanding of oneself and one’s place in the cosmos, and specifically in this case, your organization or community. It is perhaps not surprising that we would find such martian (discipline oriented) and Saturnian (boundary oriented) texts to help provide “medicinal malefics” as a curative for modern, Jovian-leaning (somewhat over-idealistic) esoteric groups.

“Through mingling with samurai, the Buddhist monk is able to understand courage, and conversely, the samurai learns compassion from the monk…One cannot advance without great courage. As proof of this, priests are sometimes seen trembling nervously when offering incense at a large Buddhist gathering. It is because they lack courage. The priest needs to be incredibly brave to trample down the evil spirits trying to return, and to hoist the dead from the chasms of the netherworld.”  – Yamamoto Tsunetomo quoting Priest Tannen


J. Brown serves on the Board of the Institute for Hermetic Studies as Secretary. When he is not working as a businessman / entrepreneur, he is raising unusual livestock and enjoying a permanent vacation from social media.

© 2018 Oath Inc. All Rights Reserved

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