leadership at sydney atheists

November 25, 2009 at 7:30 pm (atheism, essays)

i can’t believe it. semester is over, i’ve submitted my second assignment. it was due yesterday and i got it in at 12.45 this morning. less than an hour late, that’s pretty incredible for me. i was given less than two weeks for it, right after putting in another one in exactly two weeks. did he think the problem had disappeared because i came through once? well i guess this makes it nearly-twice, though it’s pretty substandard for an essay. i’m hoping he accepts it as an experiment, project or case study, especially since i’ve included my draft objects and rules as… what, supporting evidence? writing that was the reason i couldn’t spend time on this, oh, apart from formwork being laid for a concrete path outside my window on my last day to work on it, with no warning… so i hope he appreciates it even though i’ve given him a big rant with not nearly the referencing i expect of myself. or the coherence, and i know i’ve often put in work that just didn’t have time to be put together. oh, and it’s totally unedited. i think a majority of the text was actually written between about 10pm and 12.45am, and i’m not one of those people who can rely on that kind of thing. and i had an 8am meeting in the city this morning. so i’m very glad i’m generally pretty literate. it shouldn’t be massacred too much as i did employ my usual colour coding system to mark paragraphs which have some kind of start, finish and idea. by the time i clicked send, all i had was blue text so i’m hoping my running categorisation was at least slightly accurate. i doubt i’ll be able to read it again to find out, but it’s here just in case. as for the actual content… it’s been a very interesting exercise, but i’m not actually going to stand by what i’ve said too heavily. at least not unless i’m forced to actually read the thing and find out what i’ve said! i’m doing that nice turn where one writes in a blog things that should probably remain private – there are two people mentioned specifically and i’ve edited out the name of the one who isn’t me, but it’s not hard to tell who i’m talking about if you know the organisation. in painting the situation with a broad brush i suspect i’ve been overly harsh or at least rude to him, and in examining the situation from the perspective of what i personally can contribute i suspect i’ve exagerated my own competence. whatever my misgivings, this is my archive of essays so i’m posting it, in the assumption that nothing bad will come of it, as why would anyone want to read it if i can’t even manage to? but hah! turns out it’s within 10% of word count and i didn’t even check. had to do something right, somewhere…

Leadership in Sydney Atheists Incorporated

Sydney Atheist Action Group was formed a year and a half ago in April 2008, by members of a non-political discussion group, the Atheist Meetup, who wanted to do something beyond the scope of that group. Initially the Action Group consisted of a collective structure along with eight collective working groups which dealt with various projects and functions identified by the members in the first meeting.

Soon one member, A., was proposing structures, setting agendas, chairing collective meetings and doing a large proportion of the talking, while putting a particular viewpoint, “Positive Atheism”; encouraging working groups to set targets and report to the main collective.

In July 2008 came the group’s first big challenge and chance for exposure, responding to a papal visit and the NSW government’s corresponding financial and planning indiscretions. Priority was focused heavily on the world youth day and tshirts working groups, to the exclusion of most others. The plan was ambitious for a fledgling group, now rebranded as Sydney Atheists, including poll posters, a picnic, a small ‘greeting’ protest, and involvement in the large No To Pope protest, with a big banner and several people wearing Sydney Atheists tshirts. Overall people were very pleased with the events and the response, which supported a much grander view of the small organisation, in line with the new name and A.’s vision. A. was solidified as a leader due to guiding the planning process, much work, and being listed as the contact person and therefore being interviewed several times.

In September 2008, in line with this vision, Sydney Atheists incorporated. The organisation gained a committee structure, a legal status, a post box, restructured subcommittees run by officebearers, A. as president, and tensions over transparency, control and purpose. A. and a few others took care of the paperwork and legal aspects, a few points were hashed out in big acrimonious meetings and others were glossed over in order to meet deadlines. An executive was formed, with many office bearer positions tailored to specific candidates. Elections therefore went smoothly despite opposition to the previous process.

In the next year there were many achievements, from a stall at the Newtown Festival, a Mardi Gras float and progress on getting philosophy classes into NSW schools, to regular social events and podcasts and maintaining a functional website. Yet division was solidifying within the committee, as it began to appear that four people were running the organisation without the support of the rest of the active membership. Several members were concerned about accessibility and transparency issues, ranging from loss of membership forms and lack of minutes to closed meetings, and an assortment of questions regarding purpose and direction. A member was castigated for being aggressive while wearing a Sydney Atheists tshirt, and the president tried to install a manifesto which not only took an unpopular position, but was seen by many as inappropriate for an atheist organisation, regardless of popularity. Suspicion grew and people were attacked on all sides; in part, A.’s style was simply incompatible with the activists. His initiating of structure was seen as far too directive for a voluntary organisation full of people who wish to lead change themselves and not just follow. There were many attempts to resolve misunderstandings and come to compromises, but suspicion only increased and aggression became more vocal online, while both committee and subcommittee attendance decreased.

Currently, Sydney Atheists runs mainly through an email list, a website, monthly meetings and irregular subcommittee meetings, and unofficially through Meetup events. Most productive work is at a halt, with the latest people doing work on the education subcommittee dropping out without handovers, and the IT subcommittee overloaded and underattended. Most members of the structured committee have resigned or dropped out of communication, and while people are still confused about that structure, monthly committee meetings, scheduled two hours prior to Meetup events, are now running with acceptable attendance under the assumption that any interested person is equally entitled to attend, participate and vote. The current participants are heavily drawn from those who were involved in subgroup work and the discussions dissenting to the structure. Meetings and email discussion are now both largely calm and productive, though not all tasks required are committed to, or enforced.

The organisation seems to be cohering due to a more ideologically homogenous group remaining motivated to be active at the present time, in the wake of several resignations. In September 2009 A. announced his intention to resign as president, followed rapidly by the other office bearers. Online argument died down and meetings began to be held and attended. The first AGM was set for November, and productive discussion began on how to change the structure beforehand, to make the organisation more workable. The period between the resignations and the annual general meeting was acknowledged as important for the next stage of the organisation. After two well-attended, calm and productive committee meetings in September and October, there seemed to be a sense among attendees that there was a chance to make changes which could be ratified properly at the AGM, leading into a stable new year. People volunteered to make changes to the Objects and Rules of the organisation, and to give notice of the AGM. However lapses still existed in allocating and monitoring tasks, and after a while all discussion stopped. The pre-AGM meetings were not organised and a draft revised Objects and Rules was not written by the deadline for posting notice of AGM business.

In November 2009, the AGM was rescheduled for December and the conditions were finally met correctly, including a final draft revision being submitted for ratification. Several trenchant problems appear to have been resolved since one group ceded control to the other, though the effects of the latter’s leadership have not yet been well tested. Considering what can be anticipated from the organisation’s entire history, however, there is still much to do. If they are accepted, the revised Objects and Rules should take significant steps to providing an acceptable sense of purpose that is concrete enough for everyone to grasp, and address all identified transparency and accessibility issues.

Beyond that, the group needs to articulate whether it leans towards educating non-atheists or creating atheist community internally; in a group so similar to a social movement, these distinctions are not obvious (West 2008). It will need to examine motivations for involvement and ensure enough people see benefits which are high enough to cancel out their costs of involvement, despite having just abolished yet another personal benefit – the power and status of gaining an office bearer position. As we cut the position of President, the lack of an hierarchical leader becomes even clearer. The group must become open to emergent leadership and shared leadership (Carte, Chidambaram & Becker 2006), and it has some access to common forms of leadership substitutes; subcommittees can work like teams in some respects, members are commonly highly educated and interested in self education, and a strong use of technology allows information to be shared and decisions made over a broader base (Howell et al. 1990).

My involvement in Sydney Atheists has been varied. I started the Action Group by cultivating members and setting up email groups, putting opinions and sharing visions, calling meetings, chairing them and setting their agendas. I stepped away when A. took over, I had no expertise in the style of organisation he was establishing and, as Oliver (Oliver 1984) would suggest, the benefits no longer balanced out the costs since my work was no longer essential. I stopped attending committee meetings in pubs unless I had been specifically requested to, and concentrated instead on the working groups in which I had a particular interest; the survey group was working on a project I’ve had in mind for many years and the education group concerns issues I work with and study. I also initiated the 2009 Sydney Atheists Mardi Gras Bus Campaign float, and found a partner to help me run it. Throughout, I kept in touch with other members who shared my views, waiting for an opportunity to make changes without tearing down any good things that the current leaders were doing.

I was overseas when internal conflict started getting severe, but I was in contact with several people about the situation and when I returned I resumed active involvement. I participated in email discussions, between attempting to mediate the conflict a little and more encouraging the dissenters to align and take action. I attended all committee meetings, the first of which dealt with the resignations. I had plenty to say and supported others but didn’t take on any specific tasks. A week before the AGM was set, I realised that the legal notice had not gone out and it was too late to call the meeting for the date we had agreed on, much less nominate for positions or give notice for an agenda item. There had been no word from the people who took responsibility for policy or notices, so I alerted the email list with all the details I could find, and sat down with the Objects and Rules to make my own draft revision, which I made available as soon as possible. While absolutely no discussion of the document appeared online, I kept prompting the correspondence until the timeslot that we planned to have the AGM became a committee meeting primarily for review of the document, and the AGM was bumped back to the first date that I understood would be legal if the notice went out on the day we met.

I consider revising the Objects and Rules to be an important instance of leadership as people have been trying hard to follow them, but their density was a barrier (Oliver 1984) to involvement for many people unfamiliar with legal documents. Doing the actual work of writing of the revision was also important, as it appears the job was a sticking point, preventing progress.

The new version is written in plain English in many important places, though not everywhere. I intend to adjust even more, and offer a third version if necessary, at next year’s AGM. I have changed the vision statement to something more directed to what I believe the current active members want, including references to atheism and activism, both of which were specifically omitted from the original. I have abolished all office bearer positions except for Secretary and Treasurer, leaving leadership of different projects in the hands of the relevant subcommittee. I have made it easier to join the organisation, and based committee membership on meeting attendance, like a collective. In short, I have made the organisation’s purpose more specific, and opened up the structure so people can participate more easily while discouraging those who seek to control power or gain personal prestige.

At the pre-AGM committee meeting on November 22, I chaired the meeting. Over four hours, about ten people went through the document step by step and ended up with a draft revision we were all pleased with. Thanks to wireless internet, we put also put out acceptable official notices immediately. When we were done I took the document home to check, edit, format and make non-substantive changes that no one had wanted to linger over. It is posted on the website with three weeks before the AGM for members to read it and suggest small amendments. One has already been made. Considering that ten people were happy with the revision, which is well above our quorum requirements, I expect the revision to be ratified on November 14.

Other than working with documents, I believe I can show leadership in discussing direction, cultivating ties and ensuring I am informed enough to be able to step in as needed. I expect to continue keeping in touch with active members so that I am in a position to check up on undertakings being kept; also with the people who have moved away from the organisation over its troubles, to try to encourage them back now there is more room for them, while monitoring the membership to ensure that the cohesion we have recently achieved is not actually reliant on exclusivity. I also wish to educate myself about association rules and the incorporation act so we do not need to rely on A.’s expertise as much as we did, while still taking him up on his offer to explain the formalities. I intend to encourage making ties to other communities and demographics, not just through cooperation with established groups, but starting UTS Atheists and a Queeredge movement, supporting the fledgling Australian University Atheists, establishing Sydney Queer Atheists which hasn’t done anything since Mardi Gras 2009, and restarting work on a public survey of atheist self-identification. Each project has its own timeline, but will all benefit Sydney Atheists, helping the organisation and the atheist community in general become a more diverse and political. A final issue on which I feel I will have to wait for the right opportunity to rectify, is the lack of distinction between Sydney Atheists and the Atheist Meetup in the eyes of many, members and strangers alike.

Carte, T.A., Chidambaram, L. & Becker, A. 2006, ‘Emergent leadership in self-managed virtual teams’, Group Decision and Negotiation, vol. 15, no. 4, pp. 323-343.

Howell, J.P., Bowen, D.E., Dorfman, P.W., Kerr, S. & Podsakoff, P.M. 1990, ‘Substitutes for leadership: Effective alternatives to ineffective leadership’, Organizational Dynamics, vol. 19, no. 1, pp. 20-39.

Oliver, P. 1984, ‘”If You Don’t Do it, Nobody Else Will”: Active and Token Contributors to Local Collective Action’, American Sociological Review, vol. 49, no. 5, pp. 601 – 610.

West, D. 2008, ‘Informal public leadership: the case of social movements’, in P. Hart & J. Uhr (eds), Public Leadership: Perspectives and Practices, ANU E Press, Canberra, pp. 133 – 144.


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