Dec 01 2015

Victories Breakthrough Weekend Research Finding Staff “Coldness” and “Roughness”: Is This a Remnant of Warrior Weekend Envy?

Published by at 9:15 am under Men's Programs,Men's Room

In his doctoral dissertation, “Victories of the Heart: An Evaluation of a Transformational Men’s Retreat”, Josiah Miller, PsyD provides a look at one participant’s perception of “coldness” and “roughness” from the staff of the weekend.

I make a special note my thoughts about this are based on one participant’s comments, not a widespread finding of all participants from this experience. Whether others were turned off by this “cold” initial contact and the “roughness” in staff style is not clear.

However the comments of one critical observer is worth considering, especially an organization like Victories that is sensitive and reactive to criticism. I will add I witnessed and tried to change this problematic leader behavior during my 2004-2008 involvement in Victories and obviously failed.

Perhaps shedding light on this program deficit and exploring the connection to the Mankind Warrior weekend now will enable reform elements within Victories to help initiate needed lasting improvements.

This “coldness and roughness” dynamic in intensive workshops goes back further in history than even the Warrior weekend. One can look at the rise of the Human Potential Movement and large group awareness training (LGATs) programs in the 1960’s and 1970’s and find the pattern of this obhorrent leader behavior.

Participants at 60 hour intensive trainings by Werner Erhard known as EST were routinely degraded, insulted and prevented from using the bathroom for long periods of time during the program. EST evolved into the Landmark Forum, an international program which perhaps provided some influence to the development of similar programs that followed.

Victories’ principals would likely not support the idea it’s programs fit the social structure and process of LGATs, but they do. I had a conversation with a principal of another larger program who agreed his program was a LGAT.

While most participant’s of LGATs have a positive experience, some are seriously harmed and even killed. The most egregious example of death at a LGAT involves the fraudulent work of James Arthur Ray whose negligence led to the deaths of three participants. Ray was charged and convicted of negligent homicide and spent two years in prison.

For more about risks in participating in LGATs, read my short book, “Searching for Oz” here.

In the Initiation section of his dissertation titled, “unpleasant introductions”, Dr. Miller shares the comments of one participant talking about an uncomfortable view of Victories staff. The participant states:

“I don’t know if this is on purpose, but there at times I felt sort of like a coldness from the staff. And I don’t know if that‘s them developing a certain sort of rapport of sorts or maybe it’s in some ways cutting off the small talk. Yeah, it’s a little bit coldness. Yeah, just sort of like short or even I think when some guys were kind of struggling in their work or if the leaders were I think struggling with facilitating it, there was a little bit of a roughness in a way they dealt with the person.” (Miller, p.109)

This participant goes on to give a specific example to explain his perceptions. He states:

“So we showed up and we actually had our dinner we were just walking down to this bonfire and it was very first of all when I showed up, I rolled down the window and there were some of the greeters and I was “Hey how’s it going?” They were just like, “Okay I need you to park your car, I need one of you to grab your things and walk first and then you’re going to walk…” so there was no real friendly…. Yeah, it was like “This is what you’re going to do!” and then when we got to this other checkpoint it was like “Hey by the way we haven’t eaten yet” and the one dude was like “Did you not read the instructions before you came here?” and so…. And they’re like “What you’re going to have to do is hurry up and go sit on that bench. I don’t want you to talk to each other.” (Miller, pps. 109-110)

My extensive involvement in Victories from 1992 until 2008 and ongoing observations and study of the people and organization leads me to guess the leaders of this Breakthrough weekend were trying to emulate and copy various aspects of the Mankind Project’s New Warrior Weekend.

I don’t want to reveal too much about the New Warrior Weekend, but the opening described by this Victories participant will be familiar to any Warrior weekend participant.

The “roughness” by the Victories staff, however, is, I think, solely related to what I observed as two or three Victories leaders trying to “act like real men” by sounding tough, aggressive and in-your-face. I never experienced or observed this in any Warrior weekends I staffed, although I would not be surprised by this having happened during a Warrior related event. I just never saw it or experienced it.

On the other hand, I both witnessed and experienced this sort of “real men sound aggressive” behavior among Victories principals.

At a meeting for volunteer staff for a Buddy Portugal/Bob Mark weekend, Portugal went into an impassioned and aggressive speech about men’s imperfections, selfishness and need to be better human beings. I remember not listening to his words so much as his fluid, intense delivery. It was decades ago, so I don’t remember the exact words, but the message was clear.

He was the leader, his voice raised and aggressive and we needed to be quiet, obedient, and passive. And we were that way all weekend long. It was Portugal and Mark’s show and we were the (staff) audience to sit in the first two rows and let the participants know when it was time to stand up and clap. Fitzpatrick and Kachoris had similar leadership styles.

Likewise, I know leaders aggressively confronted volunteer staff for such things as not being able to attend the second of two pre-weekend staff meetings. Another time, after sharing my own anxiety about being a staff person, I was told by a principal, “don’t bring your depression to the weekend.”

I also was subjected to about 30 minutes of negative voicemails from Portugal after he was upset by my objective evaluation of the recent Boston Wisdom years (which I liked). Portugal was just used to people adoring everything he and Bob Mark did, so to receive objective feedback about my experience and constructive ideas about ways to improve the program, was too much for him. You can read what I considered his disrespectful voicemails to me here.

I have written many times about Victories threatening me with legal action for writing what they considered to be negative information about Victories. After their most recent threat, I realized I would prefer to stand up to their bullying threats and publish all my writing, including about the pressure to smoke pot and kill a rat and the Portugal voicemails I found emotionally abusive.

During one final meeting to explore the ethical and legal issues related to my right to free speech, especially about truthful experiences with Victories and its principals, I was met with another loud, threat of being sued “if we (Victories) don’t like what you write.”

Really, the person being loud and aggressive could have sent the same message more respectfully. When I told the two principals I was going to get up, leave, and file ethical complaints against Victories, the other of the two men intervened and told the other person to stop threatening me. He then told me I would not be sued for writing. He later clarified in writing that I could still be sued if Victories decided my writing was harmful.

It was helpful to me to experience the “rough” and aggressive personal interaction at this meeting, to be assured my first amendment rights would be respected, then to have this assurance be equivocated with maintaining the threat of being sued.

I knew this person to have a lot of integrity and understood he must have felt the pressure of the lawyer faction to keep me feeling threatened.

How sad for them that they would threaten me, someone who was dedicated to them and the organization for so many years, with a lawsuit for telling the truth.

It wasn’t like they didn’t want me to express my opinions and judgments about what happened. They didn’t want me to tell the facts of what happened.

Unfortunately for the Victories organization, program and principals, many others were aware of these facts and several other men (I count four) had similar experiences, though I would imagine I was the only one pressured to smoke pot and kill a rat the night before leading a weekend.

There is no doubt I was being scapegoated by the four principals in Victories and threatened with legal action because I dared to try to hold them accountable for both bad behavior and their self-focused way of diverting the legitimate reform efforts of sincere Board members and stakeholders in the 2004-2008 period.

Challenging and trying to change the goofy idea of “acting tough” and incorrectly copying aspects of the Warrior weekend (the Warrior guys do not “act tough” during the initial contact) were some of the ideas I was trying to promote back then.

Also, I was very much against the pressure to “recruit” (a LGAT characteristic) as a way of promoting programs.

My initial dispute with Portugal came when he tried to pressure me to “recruit” for an upcoming Wisdom years weekend. I told him first of all, I was already encouraging men to attend. I said further, “Buddy, recruitment is not the way to promote programs. The quality of the program should sell itself. There are problems with follow-up support groups which need to be addressed and issues with the weekend program itself.”

He had already read my evaluation from the Boston Wisdom years program, so he knew I had several critical areas of feedback. A short time later, came the request to “talk with me about what the guys were saying about the Wisdom years.” I didn’t know this, but there were efforts to expand the Wisdom years out west somewhere. I knew the program would not happen again in Boston and had no chance in hell to expand anywhere else.

I didn’t want to gossip with Buddy about the Wisdom years and rewrote my evaluation and faxed it to him. He called back and said he had received it and it was essentially the same as my evaluation from the weekend itself. He then told me he was going to share it with the Wisdom years group and thanks so much for my efforts, but this wasn’t an evaluation, these were my ideas for a Wisdom years weekend, etc, etc, and it was much appreciated…as only Buddy could say.

I knew him well and understood what he meant was I had wasted my time in writing this evaluation and the ideas expressed would go nowhere.

I already had Kurt asking me about the “pouring tequila down the pants of the participants.” I had seen this before at a Bob Mark alleged shamanic workshop with a South American guy who drank tequila at 9am and poured tequila down the pants of the participating men and offered them a swig.

Unfortunately, I allowed him to pour the tequila down my pants (bad idea),but didn’t swig, as I have abstained from all substances.

Puring tequila down the pants of participants at a Wisdom years? An extremely unwise action. Kurt began to enlist me in the efforts to reform the Wisdom years weekend by ending the tequila dumb idea, but I didn’t want to get involved in any more drama in Victories.

I had already too much on my plate, was hit hard by real estate investments in the recession, and did not want to get involved in Victories leader drama. Trying to extricate myself from the dispute with Portugal, while still telling the truth resulted in him making what I considered degrading and disrespectful personal attacks.

So, am I making a big deal about one participants comments at a Breakthrough weekend? I don’t think so, as this is but one of the more dumb leader ideas which they think is brilliant, but serve to diminish participants’ experience and likelihood of recommending the program to others.

Why are the leaders of this weekend still promoting activities and language which have no research support and result in negative program evaluations?

I didn’t think the “coldness” at the beginning of a weekend or “roughness” in facilitating psychodrama were very helpful at the time and obviously think they are especially egregious now, decades after Victories has been offering mostly successful programs.

Is it really necessary to have such a confusing, unwelcoming first contact for participants who have not really been informed about what they are getting into? I say no now and said no before.

Victories leaders were especially vulnerable as they were selected or maybe “anointed” mostly by Mark and Portugal and had not been tested by the fire of real life leadership situations. This made them more defensive and likely to attribute problems to someone else and strenuously keep their programs’ secret, so they could adapt and amend things as they went on, never really being held accountable for dumb ideas that flopped.

Sure, they will claim the secrecy is so participants can be surprised and others will not steal their intellectual property related to program ideas. I always laughed at this as Victories principals all attended the Warrior weekend and the structure of the Breakthrough weekend closely followed the structure of the Warrior weekend.

If there was stealing of intellectual property, it was no one from the Warrior program stealing from Victories. This does not mean Warrior guys didn’t like Victories programs. They did and many Warrior graduates also participated in Victories programs and had great experiences.

In the 2004-2008 period while I was on the Board and a leader, Kurt Schultz and our leadership team shifted this “imitation Warrior” behavior at the beginning of our weekends and greeted arriving participants in a normal, supportive way. We had food, coffee, and refreshments in the dining room, helped the men get their gear into the cabins, find their way and introduced ourselves.

This conscious shift helped everyone, staff and participants become more comfortable and connected as we all began the work of the weekend which involved trust in the competence of staff to lead psychodrama on Saturday. Everything else was easy. The psychodrama was what proved to be the main event for all of us.

I knew the Warrior weekend well and the stance of staff at the beginning and during the weekend had a purpose and rationale. At a Victories Breakthrough weekend, a cold and aggressive stance by staff was, at best, nice guys trying to act tough and, at it’s worst, a fraudulent copy of one aspect of the Warrior weekend.

I think the Warrior guys understand this copying pattern. Many individual men and organizations have copied the Warrior weekend in various shapes and forms.

One of the most unsuccessful copying of the Warrior weekend by Victories’ leaders Kachoris and Fitzpatrick is their so-called Shadow weekend.

Of the major Victories programs, I have always liked the Breakthrough, Wisdom years, and Psychodrama programs.

The Victories Shadow weekend was by far the worst men’s program I experienced. This was in about 1994 and I’m assured the program is now a “great” experience.

Is it?

As I have written before, the details of the program are shrouded in secrecy and I don’t think anyone knows what happens unless they attend the program. I have been reminded of the threat of legal action if I write something Victories principals don’t like simply by making a formal request for information.

What I witnessed at this weekend was terrible at the time and shocking in retrospect. I was pressured at the Thursday night staff preparation meeting with the two leaders (only the three of us) to smoke pot and kill a pet rat they had brought for this bizarre ritualistic purpose. Just to clarify, smoking pot before leading a weekend is malpractice and killing a pet rat is a felony crime. I refused and the other two leaders claim they did not smoke pot or kill the rat.

The weekend included the familiar shadow object (think knives, switchblades and handcuffs) exercises and a horrible and disrespectful sweat lodge that violated all Native American principles of conducting a sweat lodge.

The Victories principals may argue their Shadow weekend is not influenced by the Warrior weekend. Knowing these men, I understand how much they admired the Warrior weekend and how much they fought against anyone else tampering or changing anything about “their” weekend.

When there was an appropriate Board level evaluation of the extensive nudity at this first Shadow weekend, the principals were upset at the new scrutiny of their program by the fledgling Board. It was a sad example of how two people can convince themselves of anything and can react with anger when they feel criticized.

Sad too that a recent Breakthrough weekend’s overall success can be marred by the lack of leadership insight and the proper oversight by the Victories’ Board of Directors about this negative greeting by staff.

Do I write now to damage Victories and their work? No. I loved the Breakthrough weekends, especially those of our leadership team. I thought they were great and the leaders I worked with were tremendous guys, two of whom have been the most recent Victories Board presidents. They and the other guys were awesome and we were a cohesive team.

Kurt and I had both experienced the burden of leadership in our lives and welcomed the rich and dynamic contributions of the other leader team members. We all developed a collaborative model that challenged the more hierarchical leader structure of the Portugal/Mark and Kachoris/Fitzpatrick and earlier leader teams.

The Breakthrough weekend worked great with an inviting, engaging opening night and no aggressiveness towards participants during psychodrama work.

It’s not hard to be kind, especially in places where it’s needed.

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