Nov 01 2011

Setting the record straight

Addendum: There is an almost completely new Victories Board which has corrected some of my concerns, so this should be read as an historical document from 2011. You can read my update on positive Victory changes here.
Here are important ethical and program related questions for the VOH Board to explore:

  • Leader plan to smoke pot and kill a pet white rat on the eve of a mid-1990’s Shadow weekend aborted by me as a volunteer
  • Lack of cultural diversity training to encourage respect for differences
  • Confusing way the website history section portrays the financial aspects of VOH prior to 2003…all leaders prior to 2003 had a “franchise” like ownership of their weekends, a separate bank account for income and shared the profit from the $600 fee per participant equally.
  • The financial incentives for early leaders were not unethical or wrong in themselves…however calling Victories and informal group of volunteers managed by the founders is not the most accurate way to describe the organization and the leaders
  • Use of “estimated” number totals in website, offering two different totals, a third and different total being used elsewhere in a different website (There may be a correction on the website to “nearly 5,000 total men”)
  • I made one friendly phone call several years ago about these different numbers and other mistakes…some of the mistakes were corrected, but not these, even after (or maybe because) I have brought attention to them before…it again creates ambiguity, and therefore mistrust…why the different numbers and why not correct them?
  • The harm (often invisible and ignored) related to the flagrant disregard for professional boundaries between therapist leaders and their personal clients who participate and later staff programs
  • Lack of a central moral compass guiding the programs and activities
  • Disregard for the lack of research supporting the main core programs of the Shadow weekend, especially use of nudity, silence and dangerous objects
  • Absence of any conflict-resolution process
  • 2004 Strategic Plan Action plans diverted by the original leaders failure to adhere to the mandate of creating policies and procedures to govern the leadership development process
  • Bifurcation and Damage to the 2004-05 leadership development process by original leaders unilaterally leaving, duplicating, and competing with the Board established leadership group

My lengthy involvement with the Men’s Room, then VOH has allowed me to see the damaging self-aggrandizement of leaders.

What would motivate two intelligent men to even consider dragging me as a volunteer into their plan to smoke pot and killing a pet rat before assuming the responsibility for men at a weekend?

Really, think about it.

Researchers have long understood the psychological problems associated with individuals who abuse or kill animals. This isn’t to say these two leaders have serious psychological problems, like those who have a pattern of animal abuse or killing.

However, the consideration of this action and involving me without any foreknowledge was inappropriate. Even now, I am not sure what to think about it.

On their website, PETA, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, states:

“Acts of cruelty to animals are not mere indications of a minor personality flaw in the abuser; they are symptomatic of a deep mental disturbance. Research in psychology and criminology shows that people who commit acts of cruelty to animals don’t stop there—many of them move on to their fellow humans.”

Whether intentional or not, this action was a bizarre and shocking act of potential cruelty which led me to distrust these two leaders from that point forward. It shocked me and left me confused. My separation from Victories from that point forward is clear. I didn’t re-engage until 2004 when invited to work with Kurt Shultz who I respected. MY respect and admiration for him only grew during the 4 years we worked together building leader teams and training new leaders.
I won’t go into the details about the lack of cultural diversity training. It’s just obvious Victories has always been a program attracting mostly white, middle and upper middle class men.

One of the articles I had my students read was about the hidden racism in all of us. The story begins with setting a scenario where we are walking down the steps into the subway and see two groups of people standing on two different sides of the train platform.

On one side, there are a group of Caucasian men and women and on the other a group of African-American men.

The question to explore is where would we go to stand and why.

It was a great exercise and revealed a lot about our fears of African-American men which the author of the article suggested was based on our hidden awareness of the horrific trauma inflicted on African-American men as a result of slavery.

Why wouldn’t African-American men (and women) be upset? And it seems logical that we would unconsciously move to the side of the platform where on some deeper level we felt safer.

This would have been the educated way to explore Shadow concepts within VOH, so that these differences, suspicions and unresolved conflicts could be resolved.

Since that was impossible, that which was hidden became manifest. Ironic I should be lecturing VOH and Shadow principals on their own unconscious self-sabatage of themselves and others.

Where would VOH be now if these issues had been settled in 1995, 2000, or 2004? Definitely a better place, and unsuspecting, well-intentioned and skilled people like myself would still be there helping.

The 2004 Strategic Plan driven leadership development process was going well, until the  original leaders abandoned the other 6 leaders (Kevin, Paul, Kurt, Joe, Steve and myself) and acted unilaterally to create a Wisdom years leaders sub-group so extremely dysfunctional, I heard they tried to leave the VOH non-profit organization.

I knew they refused to meet with the Breakthrough leaders, but the ridiculous “secession” movement (I suspect led by the original leaders) was kept pretty secret.

Again, why the secret at the time. I really didn’t know what was going on, but this should have been a matter for the Board to involve itself. It should not have been secret.

I have enough inside information to know this was a terrible situation. The damage is obvious in just looking at how difficult it is to find men over 50 to attend the weekend now, 6 years later.

These Wisdom years men and their program were so insulated and defensive, when I finally attended the Boston weekend and was asked for feedback, my constructive feedback was taken like I was a member of Al Quida who “didn’t understand what the Wisdom years” was all about (even though I had attended) and “wasn’t really a feedback giver, but a program developer” who wanted to tell them my ideas for the program.

It was a mess.

These original leaders were intelligent, talented and charismatic, but had been doing things themselves for too long. They had become insular and incorrectly believed the dramatic testimonials to their greatness from their clients.

They needed to be protected from themselves, their own hype, and their own negligent self-care. Their VOH “brothers” did not protect them, but rather allowed them to set themselves up to fail, and they did. I complained first to them privately, then to them as a group.

The Wisdom years would have been a better program and the leaders selected more able and confident if they had been vetted by the joint leader-Board group being proposed to make those decisions.

Instead, the original leaders did their end run and although the Wisdom years was in their own words, “the only program of its type in the world for men over 50”, not many of those men seem to be interested in participating.

They have only themselves to blame. Had they been less defensive and more studious of their own psychological process, their program may have been more successful.

I know I liked the experience and saw ways it could be improved. I even offered to staff a Wisdom years at some point and significantly, was the only member of the Breakthrough leader group (maybe Joe had done it too) to participate. My thanks was a lot of negative voicemails, hostility and finally being pushed out of the organization.

If the VOH leadership at the time thought more systemically, rather than be concerned about ego, there would have been a mediation process which would have allowed the complaints I raised to be considered and a solution mediated.  In fact, an intervention was needed, but the men involved lacked the courage to confront the situation. There was an elephant in the living room, and everyone except me was willing to deny it…some thought of it as a small animal, but as it turned out, it was lethal.

Regarding my Wisdom years feedback,  I have the written evaluation available for anyone interested.
Now, I’m left to be an outlyer, unwilling to remain quiet about what I called “the stench in the room” on the day I gave up on the potential for positive change.

Finding the expanded Shadow weekend description with the audacious claims and exploitation of Native American spirituality has led me to be more honest, right now, rather than later.

While I’m sure these leaders and the others didn’t believe me when I told them “I would write a book” about all of it as one of the consequences of them not dealing directly with me on my conflicts with them, here it is in black and white.

The shocking Penn State case reminded me of how powerful people bully others, and worse, and get away with it because of the fear of the victims and others impacted by the collateral damage.

Good for me that I am facing my fear, finding my voice and telling the truth. Not just my truth, objective facts.

I recently wrote a detailed letter to the VOH Board of directors whistleblowing facts they should be aware of as they consider program planning, especially for the Shadow weekend.

In scanning the VOH website to see if the glaring history and total number of men served mistakes had been corrected or not, I noticed the Shadow weekend description had been changed. It seemed more elaborate and I noted, to my shock, a sweat lodge, objects, and all the rest of the non-scientific activities were still planned.

Knowing this, along with the James Arthur Ray sweat lodge deaths and the Penn State sex abuse tragedy, led me to say to myself,  enough is enough. I am blowing the whistle, whether anyone cares or not. I do care about myself and will not be intimidated any longer.

VOH has made one huge blunder after another in my opinion. The Shadow weekend as described is one of the biggest blunders.

Who would want to send a client or participate in a program with a reputation for controversy?
The principals behind the Shadow weekend are bright, talented and charismatic men. They could do better than this, especially if they learned to allow other people into their decision-making process.

The best teachers are those with a hunger to learn.

As it seems planned, the Shadow weekend is symbolic of the bad programming resulting from confirmation bias,  two leaders reinforcing their program ideas, without adequate research and evaluation of these ideas in the real world.

As I connect the dots now, I have a better understanding of why these leaders circled their wagons, met together, and secretly agreed to stonewall me in my complaint against them. Whether conscious or not, it was self-serving to them to keep things secret.

They all defensively protected themselves, stonewalled me, and degraded my legitimate complaints about their harm of me and the organization that was now a non-profit, not their personal family business.I have no doubt a better Shadow weekend could have been developed if it was a collaborative process as was suggested back in 2007-08.

Now, I think it  best to be eliminated and some other experience built on the successful components of the Wisdom years and Breakthrough weekend be created.

All of the leaders should resign and go through a merit selection process with the Board of Directors before continuing to lead the organization.

In another telling irony, the original leaders were present and, ostensibly, still working on the many months long effort to develop a leadership development program.

They heard the ideas I presented from our development group, including the recommendations for merit selection of new leaders by a committee of leaders and Board members and a shift to leader teams of 3-4 men with some structure of leader, assistant leaders.

The original leaders unilaterally stopped any movement to merit selection of leaders or away from the historical two leader teams.

More telling is the fact they never returned to the leader of eight (Bob, Buddy, Kevin, Paul, Joe, Steve, Kurt and Bill) group to complete the leadership development effort. This effort of many months began with the strategic plan’s action plans of developing a unified leadership development program for all Weekends.

Consider the specific language from the 2004 Strategic Plan’s Action Plan ratified by leaders and the VOH Board of Directors:


A. Develop policy and procedure that specifies a path for leadership training”

The original leaders specifically disregarded the spirit and letter of the Action plan by unilaterally abandoning that current leader group of 8 and the failed results of the Wisdom years development, the Shadow weekend fiasco, my open complaints about them to the Board, the failure of the organization to develop a training for small group facilitation, and the ongoing lack of a central moral and ethical code guiding programs and relationships within the organization are part of their real legacy.

My educated guess is they smelled the coffee and could see the possibility of losing their power to do just about whatever they believed was best, so met with the current “strong man”, sold him on the idea that the best way forward was for them to “develop the Wisdom years” program by themselves, while “he (and Bill) developed the Breakthrough leadership development program.”

It was disastrous move for the organizational development process which had some energy coming out of the 2004 Strategic Planning process.

The idea of two separate leadership development programs was counter to the Strategic planning agreement and bifurcated the organization.

Hindsight is 20-20 of course, but I realize now the original leaders unilateralism was enabled by secrecy, manipulation, and their use power in the organization. Who would confront and challenge them? They were larger than life for most of us.
Here is a post of an email I sent to VOH principals (probably in 2004 sometime) where I stress the need to develop a better plan to have men competent to lead the follow-up groups.

What happened was a staff was selected, then two men were asked to volunteer to lead the small group after the weekend. I didn’t like this plan, and neither did other leaders. They selected, nurtured, and manipulated men to fill that role permanently on  their weekends.

As part of my complaints to these original leaders, I told them, “I kept waiting for them to come back to the leadership development process to complete it…”

What a joke on me. I was like some lost child whose mother had left the family mysteriously, orbited around the family, who I thought would eventually return.

These original leaders fostered and encouraged these family type metaphors, one even having an art piece created of a man walking hand in hand with a little boy in his office for clients to see as the last thing before sitting on his therapy couch.

The sabotage of the leadership development program was a typical end-run maneuver. People in families and organizations do it all the time. However, for the fragile MR/VOH program it had a lasting, damaging impact.

It stopped the momentum for the leadership development process. The Psychodrama training was in place, but the unified small group facilitator training became stuck in the mud.

My efforts to get original leaders to engage in the program development process were met with talk to Leo Dhont.

Leo and I did talk. He had been given the task to come up with something for Wisdom years small group facilitators. As I remember, he had no idea of the VOH effort to create a unified facilitators training.

He also never heard about or saw a copy of the 2004 Group Workbook which resulted from the 2004 Committee to develop training protocols for the follow-up groups. You can read a copy of this here.

Another end run, with me being encouraged to drive down one way streets with no outlet. Seven years later, there is another task force set to study the small group facilitator training. I am not optimistic.

The notion of there original leaders meeting face to face and discussing, exploring, even fighting in an open forum was anathema.

It’s why my complaints against leaders never had a chance of happening, unless the leadership switched allegiance from the principal leaders personally, to a conflict resolution process. He could not do this. I had requested he stay out of it and also in writing asked the original leaders to not speak to him or involve him.

They ignored this and encouraged him to get me to back off. Although this was a strategic mistake on his part, I do not fault him. The men who manipulated him were convincing and persuasive. They got to him.

As a result, my complaint grew from something between two people, to a challenge to the fundamental power dynamic in the organization.

Would the organization develop a more open, democratic process where original leaders were not deified, or maintain the status quo which was unhealthy for all, especially the original leaders?

They were forced to maintain a facade of being all powerful, which had to be enormously stressful on them as people.

I know the stress on me was monumental at that time, dealing with resistance from the various triangles and associated coalitions related to the attempts to  change the tequila at Wisdom years, the nudity and silence at the Shadow weekend, and the failure to create a unified leadership development program and effective group facilitator training.

Call it whatever you want, these were not men who could easily address and resolve conflict directly. The results of this have been disastrous for the health of the organization and individuals.

The secret, competitive dyads, triangles and associated coalitions have created organizational ruts where tasks forces or committees are the place good ideas go to be lost and forgotten.

It’s no secret VOH has created still a new task force to look at the small group facilitation problems. I raised this issue in 1993, again in 2004 with a task force, wrote a training program outline and group workbook, got program proposals approved by leaders and Board, then nothing happened. I warn the volunteers in this task force to not waste your time.

MKP has long been the envy of original VOH leaders. They expressed their envy through put downs, unrealistic comparisons in the 1990’s that MKP was failing and MR/VOH would soon be the BIG player in the men’s work field, and the similarity in organization mission, values, goals.
Many programs copied MKP too. MKP was fine with it and felt like the more programs helping men look within the better.

VOH original leaders were too envious in their copying of MKP programs. In their efforts to be different, they ended up looking too similar. I addressed this in my 2004 report to the Board as requested prior to the 2004 Strategic Planning process. The two consultants leading the Strategic Planning process complimented me for the detailed analysis of Victories and told me they learned a lot from reading my report.
I said then and still believe MKP’s New Warrior Training Adventure does it all very well, and the VOH Shadow weekend is a very degraded, ineffective facsimile.

Related to financials, MKP has had a stipend system of compensation in place for as long as I can remember.

And whether one likes MKP or not, the leaders earn their right to lead through a rigorous training process which includes open and often tough feedback. It’s a gauntlet which strengthens the men themselves and the organization.

A short ritual at the beginning each weekend takes place where the leaders request and are given the responsibility to lead from all the men present, and then at the end give that responsibility back to the men.

There is no such ritual in VOH. Men are still selected and anointed by a higher power.

The leaders need skills, but not charisma and showboating. It’s not that complicated if you have a basic understanding of neurobiology and group dynamics to be successful.

The leadership success of the men participating in the psychodrama training is proof teaching skills works.

Like the Wizard of Oz metaphor so popular at early Men’s Room weekends, early leaders created a presonality based message to “followers” that it was they (leaders), and some sort of magical “sculpting out of thin air” who were responsible for the psychodrama results on Saturday.

I remember being one of those “wide eyed young guys” who idealized Kevin and Paul for their “magic” as psychodrama leaders.

Then, I attended a New Warrior Training Adventure weekend and saw that Kevin and Paul were just adding their own personal twist to things they had learned at the Warrior weekends they attended and staffed, and their own personal Integration Groups which utilized Warrior language and activities.

It’s smart to replicate effective ideas and programs,  but dishonest not to give those ideas and programs credit. Even a little citation would be more ethically sound.

I deserve a citation for my work with psychodrama and don’t mind acknowledging David Kaar from MKP who taught me more about psychodrama at men’s weekends in a 2 day workshop I attended with Kurt, than any VOH leader. Kurt and the other men deserve credit too.

In fact, before Kurt and I, VOH leaders never tried to train anyone in psychodrama.

Perhaps, there wasn’t enough room behind the curtain in Oz.

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