Responsibility of Leadership
By Bill W., General Service Conference, 1963
Our season of rejoicing, reflection, action and love in close intimacy is drawing to its close and it will presently belong to the past. But the impressions and benefits left upon us which we trust will be carried to others, shall be, I think, imperishable.
We have themed this Conference on the subject of Our Common Welfare. I think this Conference, more than most, has also been themed on the subject of gratitude. So on behalf of all, let us renew our gratitude for all who have served at this end of the line, running down to latest arrived boy in the packing room. We are not apt to think habitually in terms of relative importance of people but I think in God’s sight, he must rather enjoy our error because he knows that is the cosmic scheme of things that we are all equally importance. The only thing that distinguishes us is this, that we are in various stages of progress as we march along the pilgrims road to eternity. So when we talk about our common welfare-that word, common-has for us a singular and poignant meaning. My assignment in this enterprise has had a certain uniqueness and one of its qualities about which I am not beefing, but reciting as a condition, is a tendency to isolation. I had always been a person desperately wanting to belong and I know I do belong in your affections and regard in a very singular way and I thank God for that. Nevertheless, this post has had and does have its isolation which in late years has grown because the era of “father knows best” is past. The time of active participation is over.
You have come to the moment of full responsibility. So this is one of the occasions that, since I can no longer travel among you because the situation cannot be done justice and because I should not, as the parent of a now grown and responsible society encourage your dependence upon me, this great and inspiring yearly exception in this sense, I feel I can be of and among you and one of you, just about to the degree that I mingle freely, say little and keep off this rostrum where old habit makes me renew the father-knows-best role. So I thank you for letting me at least once a year join the Fellowship of Alcoholics Anonymous. It is a prized and treasured experience on which I shall live the next twelve months.
You know this society is full of paradoxes; I might say more emphatically that it reeks of them. It is a sea of phenomena running counter to the to the powerful trends that we see in the world today. We have discarded paternalism, except as a temporary expedient for infants and adolescents. We have a whole have taken responsibility instead of turning it over to self—appointed servants. We have done all sorts of things in our common welfare which the world today deems so necessary for its welfare. Perhaps, anyway, we have backed away. There is another paradox to which I wish to call special attention. I think it was Lord Acton who once remarked that power always corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely. So in the interest of our welfare, we have tried so far as we can to give up temptations to power and fame, to security at the expense of others and strangely enough, as this is the paradox, we have been able to bring defective people, who, in His providence, have been able to bring into being a society seemingly not only sound in principle but of great beauty and great perfection in potential. This creation and perfection has been the work of fallible people as contrasted with other societies where the morality of governments and the behavior of governments is far inferior to that of the average person. The society itself is beauty and perfection, and it stays that way despite the fact that we each take our turn in being destructive, in being juvenile and generally acting like hell. Is this not a great gift of Providence? Yesterday I had occasion to talk about the group conscience and it is out of the group conscience and through it, imperfect filter that it is, because composed of fallible people, that all of this has emerged. Therefore the group conscience in the light of our experience is by general acclaim our basic authority. It is the first part of Tradition Two, but much overlooked is the part of Tradition Two is that which refers to the “trusted servant.”
Yesterday I gave a few intimations of what a trusted servant sometimes tried to be; just for a few minutes I would like to enlarge on that topic.
The language of the heart is never bedeviled with semantics, but the word “servant” sometimes suggests servility, obedience to unreason, crawling before adversity. This isn’t the meaning for us. Another badly twisted word is “leadership” and I think I’ve heard A.A.’s say it is a dirty word—and that slant is perfectly natural, because as we survey the world around us and its leadership, we see in this society of ours that if these forces ever really got in the saddle we would have trouble. So the trusted leader in A.A. has to be quite something else. He is not the superior person, he is a fallible person (and I belong in the rear rank) but he is a person endowed with certain talents, given a certain opportunity and he is supposed to lead. What do we mean by leadership and what does this require of us who have this trusted—servant tag on us? How do we relate ourselves to this “conscience,” the ultimate kind?
Well, I think I pointed out yesterday that everybody in a certain sense is a leader in the society, everybody carries the language of the heart to the guy or gal still suffering. This is the supreme leadership, this is the greatest trusted area, but there are those of us who find ourselves cast into assignments of service leadership. This is nothing but a specialty in which we are supposed to become expert and dedicated to the task of making the primary leadership possible. If life is to be carried to the newcomer, he has to be brought within reach. This is our business here, it is the business of every Intergroup, every group committee. And we who man these special enterprises are commonly called trusted servants, and this implies leadership of the highest order, minus the usual implications.
What are some of the requisites? I think the greatest of all is love and understanding and forgiveness of the sins of all kinds and conditions of A.A. members with whom we deal. There must be that communication of the heart, otherwise we shall have no right or authorization to serve in this capacity. This is number one. That’s the kind of thing that flows and must be possessed by the sponsor as he talks to the man on the bed, and we should acquire this in great measure. It is said that leaders are born and not made, but in A.A., paradoxically, we do make them. They learn how. Some of us had a like experience which has proved of great value. I think this has been my case and it has been with many. It doesn’t make us more important, just makes us more useful in some particular way.
Another attribute of leadership; Once you get in one of these spots of leadership, even on a group committee, as these forces grow and become exaggerated and as we get more responsibility, pressures and temptations grow as well as the satisfactions. The temptation to distinction and to buy approval at any price; the temptation to present one persona to the people you are leading when privately you have quite another one-these become exaggerated and these have been my temptations and yours. And little by little, you want people, when any good will be served, to know you as you really are- the best and the worst. So leadership inevitably brings out our best in this society and because of these pressures, it frequently brings out or worst and this can be valuable, and our best can be very, very good. So it has been with me. I sometimes think it has brought out the best and sometimes the worst. So we must realistically look at this without fear, because the record shows that fallible people thrust into these positions of responsibility and pressure, do in the aggregate come through.
Let’s take a look at another quality of leadership. The minute you get in a position like this you suddenly find yourself on the receiving end of inordinate credit and praise, and even if you know that it is exaggerated, you love it. But if you devour too much of this, in creeps pride and this tendency to think “I am someone different.” So a leader has to say, “What is reality?” Is this the image that people would have me fit, or am image I can fill, or am image that I know represents who I am? So an inventory has to be taken, then comes our critics, the constructive ones and they say to us, I think you are making a mistake, I think this is wrong, I think you are biased, sore; I don’t want to preach, I love you, but I want to help. We have to listen to this so carefully as we should listen carefully to the group conscience when we are sure we know what it’s talking about. Then come critics of even more value, critics who are angry, sick, hostile, and who sometimes will employ the methods of attack that congregates forgot in 1900. So now we are hurt; and because these sick ones unknowingly have tried to elevate themselves by downgrading others, we who are supposed to know better, repeat the same process and we proceed to downgrade them in order to make ourselves feel secure and we indulge in all sorts of indignation, all of which we label as righteous.
We have to watch this, particularly in the role of trusted servants and we must not allow ourselves to believe in unreasonable downgrading and say, yes, I am unworthy. This won’t do because it is not so. The defects, yes, so we admit the defects to ourselves and to others and we accept the fact that we have them. I can promise you that if I had pondered exclusively on my list of defects and that pondering had resulted in continual guilt and depression, I should have long ago been incapable of service. We are not saints; we claim progress and not perfection. The only thing we can do perfectly is to admit our mistakes.
Now when we look at the bright side as trusted servants, let us not say that it is prideful; let us say that it is realistic to have a healthy self-esteem. Too often we forget that the Fourth Step includes capabilities. So without pride or exaggeration, say “yes, I do have these capabilities. These are not of my making, they are God’s gifts, but I do have them and they are used in this work of being a trusted servant.” So then we get in a condition of balance between light and dark, which I think is humility for today. Another thing a leader must have is the capability of making estimates, of helping to frame plans, of taking advice, of consulting, of making an estimate for the future. Some say this is heresy—it should be one day at a time, God will provide.
Another paradox. Emotionally, one day at a time, God will provide for today. But let us not suppose that he doesn’t expect us to use our capability for making estimates and plans for the future. So let us try to do this. We shall sometimes fail but this is better than doing nothing for fear of failing. This your trusted servant must strive to do. You don’t live emotionally in the future, but your estimate that if we have a certain set of conditions, what is liable to happen in the future? This is natural and we can learn and consciously acquire it and some of us have great gifts for which we aren’t responsible-they came out of birth, but let them be used.
Then there is this quality of obedience to the group conscience. When you are sure this conscience is right, and when the questions concerned are within its experience, you would do well to obey and overcome these reluctance, overcome your now acquired habit that servants should consult servants. That the servants know better. Learn to compromise. In fact, somebody has said that progress spiritually or in other ways is composed hopefully of an increasing series of better and better compromises. So the discrimination of when to obey or to engage in compromise is important. Now there are certain times, they don’t come often, they are very rare, some of you may not have encountered them at all, thrust into the position in which I stand. You can have guessed there are times when you have to stand alone and then you take inventory and then you try to make estimates and you try to curb your anger and your power driving; you don’t succeed entirely but if the responsibility for this decision is really yours and outside the knowledge of the group conscience, maybe you are going to disagree with your best friends, get widespread criticism, hostility and disapproval. But if it is your responsibility to the future, you have to face the fact that leadership is not a question always of espousing popular opinions or causes. There comes a few times when your responsibility is such and convinced that your station gives you a wider vision than others have the advantage of, then, you must stand alone; in fact, this standing alone is expressed in the Concepts where there is such a concern for minorities and their rights and how often they can be right and this also applies to a minority of one.
At important turning points in the history of A.A., it has become my lot to stand in those lonely positions. I am glad I was given those chances and that no grievous error resulted – Thank God.