Protect Tall Poppies

In discussions about Quaker leadership, I often hear reference to the “tall poppy syndrome” many believe is common among Friends. The term evokes the picture of a field of poppies (a type of flowering plant) in which the tallest ones are cut down so all the flowers are equal in height. The metaphor seems to have originated in Australia and New Zealand to describe their egalitarian spirit, as they are suspicious of anyone who stands out and acts like they are “better than everyone else.” The social tendency is to cut those stand-out people back down to size. 

It’s not hard to see how this applies to Quaker community and leadership. Equality is one of our core values and social testimonies. Most Friends are committed to an egalitarian vision of faith community and suspicious of anything that looks like hierarchy. 

Yet we also have an individualist streak, admiring Friends who stand for peace and justice and refuse to violate their conscience. We look to individuals who were “tall poppies” in their times, like George Fox, Margaret Fell, Mary Dyer, and John Woolman. This creates a tension between individual and community that has great potential as a creative tension. But too often it becomes awkward, if not stifling to the growth of both leaders and their meeting. 

Robert Greenleaf coined the term “servant-leadership” and that helped some of us hold the tension, but most Quaker groups have an uneasy relationship to leadership, to say the least. Quaker educator Paul Lacy went so far as to say many Friends communities develop an “anti-leader” who, ironically, exercises leadership in order to resist leadership. So we are left with either no clear leadership or toxic leadership. 

It’s not all doom and gloom, however. There are still Friends in our meetings with both integrity and gifts for ministry. There are still folks taking responsibility and seeing possibility within their people and place. God is still raising up Friends with passion and compassion who carry visions for vital futures. 

The only problem is that they look like tall poppies. And each time they stand up or speak up, they are subject to attacks from Friends who think it’s their responsibility to cut them down, serving as the humbling hand of the Almighty. No wonder so many potential Quaker leaders feel deflated and discouraged. 

If the Society of Friends is to have a future, we need leaders. And those leaders will require intentional nurture, supportive structure, and even some protective cover. Elders can affirm their gifts and stand up to anti-leaders while still recognizing the spiritual equality and equal value of other members of the meeting. The paradox is that when a tall poppy is able to thrive, the health of all the flowers in the field improves.

Who are the “tall poppies” in your meeting or organization?

How can you offer nurture or cover to emerging Quaker leaders?