How John Friend Failed as a Leader.

Via Alan Shelton
on Feb 21, 2012
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Another guru bites the dust.

What is it about the spiritual world and its message of freedom and awakening that so often devolves into the consistent lack of leadership that this selfsame message demands?

While I watch the angst and ego-drama erupt around the unveiling of John Friend, I can’t help but ask myself, “What’s new in this picture?”

Failures of leadership such as the current fiasco with John Friend affect what I do. I am a corporate leadership guy who has migrated the Advaitic path of awakening into my work, so I understand the impact it has when those you would think can hold the space for this message continue to shoot themselves in the foot.

Still, it shouldn’t come as a huge surprise. Early in my seeker’s journey, I was fortunate to spend years as a sannyasin in the world of Osho. Scandal and controversy were no strangers to anyone who lived in that world. But this playing field expands way beyond any one ashram, school or spiritual path. Even a cursory read of the insightful and entertaining book American Veda by Philip Goldberg will immediately alert us to the consistent plague of sex and drug scandals linked to various gurus who have brought us the message of enlightenment and awakening. So what don’t we understand about those who ask us to follow them (or love them) and then can’t deliver leadership at the level of maturity it would seem reasonable to expect? And why do we repeat the agony of identifying with the ego-drama every time one of these spiritual luminaries goes down?

When I used to sit with Ramesh Balsekar, Nisargadatta’s favorite son, he would often make the comment, “Enlightenment and awakening are sudden, but the arrival of maturity takes some time.”

What did he mean by this? He obviously did not hold that a personal awakening, whether permanent or fleeting, automatically creates spiritual leadership. And it is the wisdom of this de-linking that seems to so often be missed. Time and time again, genuine spiritual aspirants, in their hunger for truth, assign the impossible ideal of perfection to the guru-like leaders who capture attention with their sparkling personalities and often-brilliant teachings.

We all know that the basic concept that defines awakening is the passage from the ego- assumption into a felt experience of total unity. As children we are taught that each of our body-minds is a separate entity. We are also taught that this ego-entity controls or authors the outcomes that we experience. Awakening is simply the replacement of our identification with that single entity by a new felt experience that we all are the same consciousness. In essence, our focus on the ego—which typically has grown large enough to cover the entire canvas of awareness—shrinks it to its appropriate size, and our natural state is seen for what it is. But does the experience of this awakening translate into mature leadership?

I often heard from gurus in India that each body mind is designed to produce certain outputs in existence. For example, when the theory of relativity needed to be delivered to humanity, the body-mind called Albert Einstein was the vehicle that was perfectly wired to bring this about. The same could be said for the execution of leadership. When leadership needs to occur, there will indeed appear the perfect body-mind to hold the space for consciousness to guide its leader puppet. It is very important to understand this distinction. For it might very well be that a personality called John Friend was the perfect vehicle to bring Anusara to thirsty seekers—but this does not imply that this same personality will automatically be the choice of consciousness to take on the mantle of leadership. For, you see, the maturity needed to lead from that space of awakening is not immediately conferred.

Source: Multnomah County, Oregon, Oregon Department of Corrections via Wikipedia

Those who are familiar with Anusara know that the basic underpinning of its philosophy is Tantra. In simple terms, Tantra is the complete immersion of the body-mind into the experience of the treasures of Existence. Many times it is mistakenly seen as a path of sexuality only. But this is not the case. It is the total melting of the individual into the experience that surrounds her until there is a felt experience of no difference between the experience and the experiencer. Now this seems easy to understand. Unfortunately, there is a double-bladed issue with the Tantric approach: The gobbling up of all experience can lead to either an extremely polished ego or to the complete dropping of ego-identification.  If the permanent felt experience of nonseparation does not occur, typically Tantra has the downside of producing the largest egos known to man. So, much like my experience on the Tantric path with Osho, the Anusara movement must now grapple with the egos that it has created for itself.

So, what happened with John Friend? To his credit, he founded a beautiful movement. But it is clear that he assumed that his own moments of spiritual awakening should designate him as the leader of this movement. And as with many others who have stood at the top of the movements they founded, he simply was not up to the task. As I mentioned earlier, we all are conditioned to believe that we are the independent authors of our own journeys. We buy into the separation that we believe exists and then develop our behaviors as though that were the case. To keep everything moving in the direction we think it needs to go, we project the image that we believe others should see in us.

However, in so doing, we deny the aspects of ourselves that we don’t want others to see. We often call those aspects the shadow. If we have listened to Carl Jung, as well as Joseph Campbell, Ken Wilber, Rollo May, and many others, up to current voices such as Debbie Ford, we know what the shadow implies. And that the reclaiming of our shadow pieces is essential on the path to maturity. It is this process that allows us to see ourselves as though we were the experiment in a science lab rather than through the single-focus lens of ego-identification. Once this reclaiming has occurred, the pain related to being found out as a human-with-faults no longer comes into play. It is this pain that, through years of conditioning, causes us to engage in strategies and manipulations we hope will prevent us from being seen in a lurid light.

So, recognizing the fundamental principle that transparent leadership can only occur as a function of spiritual maturity, we can posit that one of two things happened in the case of John Friend. Either he had the awakening experience that he claimed and did not pursue the path of maturation required to become a transparent leader (to himself or anyone else) or he simply had a vision that could translate into something worth sharing, and as an ego had the personality to attract other egos and attach them to his message.

I suppose that one could take the position that the gurus we embrace in worship continue to fall so that we can make the important distinctions we need for our own awakening journey. Of course, that would be personalizing the reason for these events. But if that story works in your journey, why not?

To my mind, what would be most helpful is to see the failure of John Friend, and his manipulative leadership approach, not as an outcome but rather as a doorway inviting us to engage in developing our own maturity. For this engagement makes it possible for our leadership to match the awakening that allows us to experience the unity of consciousness we always have been.

It can be painful to watch so many beautiful and loving people regard their own spiritual world as collapsed or permanently destroyed. I welcome any and all comments regarding this current drama. When you do respond, think about whether you are speaking as yourself or if you are allowing the message of consciousness to pass through you. For it is in the space of conscious responding that you have the opportunity to walk across the bridge from protecting your ego to the awakening experience itself.


About Alan Shelton

Alan E. Shelton is a leadership coach, seminar leader, speaker, blogger, and author. His groundbreaking book, Awakened Leadership: Beyond Self-Mastery (May 2012), integrates the corporate leadership and spiritual worlds through his message that awakening is the felt sense that your actions seamlessly reside in who you really are and move in a perfect flow. Learn more about Alan at


37 Responses to “How John Friend Failed as a Leader.”

  1. agurvey says:

    I have always been a proponent of the idea that absolute power corrupts…absolutely. Any leader in history, who has tried to covet his or her own power and try to manipulate the perceptions of those around is setting up a house of cards that's bound to fall at the first shake-up. You present an interesting idea that there is a maturation process associated with assuming, if you will, the mantle of leadership. Even further is the idea that this maturation comes with the embracing of the Shadow. Who, in your estimation, in history (I'll give you as much latitude as you want for this question), has been the kind of leader who has matured into their role and embraced the shadow-side of their consciousness? Very thought-provoking article. Thank you.

  2. Joe Combest says:

    hmmm, much of that is over my head and I am not knowledgable about yoga or yogi's… but I do know that yogi bear would never put his interests ahead of boo-boo bear's or vice versa. The point is.. real leaders (at least good ones) are servants. They don't chose to lead because of what they can get but because of what they feel is needed by others. The occasions that I have been in the role of leader, I felt it much more of a chore than an honor. Being the basically lazy guy that I am, I chose to seek a degree of anonymity that is aligned with my level of … motivation and concern?? Anyway, I believe good leaders are primarily servants. You can tell the bad ones cause of what they take and the good ones cause of what they give. Great leaders are a function of the right person (skill/ability/willingness or mind/body) and the right time as events and history require … Thanks for the article.. see, I am paying attention 😉

  3. Excuse me, "spiritual luminary"??

    Holy crap. Is ej publishing melodramatic fiction now?? :))

    all this about a bit of yoga (shakes head …. )

  4. not as an outcome but rather as a doorway inviting us to engage in developing our own maturity.



  5. well he was sort of "positioned" that way :p

  6. which only goes to showcase how cheap and misused the word "spirituality" has become in yoga circles…or modern parlance.

  7. "real leaders (at least good ones) are servants." Precisely. However, I don't know if this concept is anything like what an ego-driven kingdom builder is ever going to be content with….

  8. Tanya Lee Markul says:

    Posting to Elephant Yoga on Facebook and Twitter.

    Tanya Lee Markul, Yoga Editor
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  9. sundried says:

    Luke 22:70 Then said they all, Art thou then the Son of God? And he said unto them, Ye say that I am.

    Christening Friend, anybody "guru" without their having done so is giving them credibility. Maybe he was headed toward guruing himself, but sheesh, there has been so much armchair psychoanalyzing as to fill a very extremely large bucket- he's just taking time off, not even resigning! But he's fallen? Based on unpublishable allegations? Cause he ruined (shitty?) marriages about which we know nothing? If he is fallen, it's because people he trained never really believed in him to begin with, but stuck around because the food was good at his place.
    The general lesson of the article, that we need to watch with whom we give power, is always timely, but to sanctimoniously crown people fallen, especially such a clever entrepreneur like Friend who is still very much around, only strengthens a myth.

  10. sundried says:

    If by "movement" is meant the company Friend founded, runs, and owns completely, I'd think this would lead most people to designate themselves leader.

  11. sundried says:

    I'm glad we agree the article is sanctimonious, but I didn't know this is a lesser-evil game, I always loose those. And Friend never called himself guru, he said so in his first letter about the allegations, and wouldn't because he's clever enough to know that would raise too many eyebrows. Even in one of those appology letters to a lady he was "we were using sex to do some energy stuff" and not "I gave you sex power, your anger is stupid, I'm #1" which maybe is manipulative, but then again, maybe it's the intrisic nature of the fool. And I don't think it was their egos, but the stable employment they enjoyed, through Friend's grace. that and they're stupid, right?

  12. yoginid says:

    Yea, he was never my guru. If anybody viewed him as a guru, that was there first mistake. He often asked people should question him in workshops…love the method and school. Not the most informe blog but i appreciate the info…

  13. Tom says:

    John becomes visibly upset if some one refers to him as a guru…. Therefore, any of the countless posts and blogs on this issue where it cites him as one, lets me know the author hasn't studied that much with him much (if at all)… I guess intellectualizing the fall of some one is to de-humanize them- which is what many did when they put him on an unrealistic pedestal of infallibility.

  14. Alan Shelton says:

    In writing the article I did not depend on John Friends representation of his guruship. Rather I took the approach that if it walks, quacks etc like a duck, it's a duck. The question of leadership and lack of transparency really isn't a question here. But for those who attached themselves to John in a guru/disciple relationship, they now find themselves in emotional turmoil. The possible shift available to those in that situation can happen by eliminating the holding of this scandal as a destination. Holding the event as a doorway and seeing that misplaced dependence and lack of transparency in leadership are held as identified pieces of the ego are key here. So for those who clearly don't have these issues as evidenced in your comments I could only ask- can you hold the space of compassion for those who do? That was the spirit of the article no matter the historical recitation of the detail.

  15. Anonymous says:

    That's funny because I worked for him and heard him refer to himself as that many times.

  16. lauraplumb says:

    Wonderful article, Alan. Thank you.

  17. Alan Shelton says:

    OK you got me for picking on the ducks. In any tradition the arrival point of awakening occurs when egoic differentiation that glues identity to individual doership drops or dissolves. Reclaiming the shadow is simply a later version arising in modern therapeutic process but with older roots for sure. Devices for awakening seemingly appear to match each culture to which they apply. And with the advent of modern Psychology arose the notion as it is held now of reclaiming the shadow. So reclaiming arrives at non differentiation.
    My point about leadership is that every body-mind has it's appointed function in phenomenality. Leaders arise in response to leadership being required in a happening. If personal obfuscation or lack of transparency also arises it is easy to see that mature leadership is not being exercised. So attaching to a guru and at the same time projecting the expectation of transparency may be a doorway a seeker encounters on the path. Unwinding those two can be a helpful distinction. When simply in the space being held for leadership, a body-mind in the mature state will respond to the call to lead with the personal transparency (arising impersonally) that sacrifices the need for individual ego image.

  18. Bob Keaty says:

    Leaders are made by FOLLOWERS. Enough people benefited from what he promoted, even if some of it was a fiction. The growth and maturity that will come out of this cannot be represented on an organization chart.

  19. Frank says:

    How about "Human".

  20. Ka-BAM! But "Anonymous" doesn't really work here, Anonymous 🙂

  21. doug says:

    Your Question: "Who, in your estimation, in history (I'll give you as much latitude as you want for this question), has been the kind of leader who has matured into their role and embraced the shadow-side of their consciousness?" My Answer: Mahatma Gandhi.

  22. I think your article was wonderful and right on target, you really just spotlighted that particular human condition, and it was well done. You don't *have* to know all the nitty gritty; one person writes "I didn't see him as guru" while another writes "he was my guru" and another "he told me several times he was a guru." So who cares about detail? No one except the individuals involved; as for overall articles, yours was about a particular nature of r/ships that is generic and also inherent in many environments, and it stands.

  23. Perhaps, since you ask, I might suggest the doorway leads to an increased awareness, for you and every individual involved, that despite their claims or actions, not everyone shares the same motivation as you do and to think they do is perhaps a little naive. I'm sorry to say that, because I wish it weren't so….

  24. Rabbi Robinowitz says:

    Who is John Friend?I always felt the guru(dispeller of darkness) within you…sometimes he can't spell very well though.

  25. agurvey says:

    Thank you for your answer, Doug. Isn't Gandhi purported to have experimented with sleeping NEXT TO (notice I am being very careful with words here) teenage girls in the same bed near the end of his life as a sort of spiritual experimentation, to test his ability for restraint? I can never find corroborated evidence on this which is why I am asking it in this sense. I guess the psychological effect on the young participants, who I am assuming were willing, is something that would make me curious, even if nothing sexual happened. Just food for thought. I am not bandying about accusations about Gandhi, but that rumor does exist. Anyway, I appreciate your thoughts. If it is true, i would consider that somewhat of an abuse of power.

  26. Millie Weir says:

    The important question is "What is the lesson for the rest of us in John Friend's fall?". Those who fly so high, so fast, often find their feathers scorched. Gifted is not perfect nor accomplished in every regard. We must all learn when to ask for, AND to accept help when we need it. He makes me think of a surfer, determined to ride a HUGE wave his first time out. He stick in there as it gets bigger and bigger and bigger, until it's truly awesomely huge, and only then, just as it breaks over him, realizes that he forgot to learn how to swim…. Perhaps John Friend got so caught up in listening to others that he forgot to listen to himself?

  27. agurvey says:

    Alan, thank you for replying, and so thoughtfully! I love the question you pose, and I think my answer is riddlled with irony. Please note that my computer will probably not allow me to write my full answer in one fell swoop so I will provide a reply to myself to continue the thought process. I feel that the "simple" answer to your question would be: In order to write a piece that seeks to open a "held space" of acceptance and compassion that will facilitate our internal path, the piece would have to be written in a vacuum, wherein a non-judgmental "held space", free of media and opinion, could be established. Now, because of the amount of thought you put into your article, because I find this incredibly interesting, and because I am analytical in my discourse style, I will not perform the injustice of leaving you with that cop-out of an answer.

  28. agurvey says:

    I would have to say that a "held space" can be created utilizing postulations so that someone reading the piece will understand the intent of it. I understand that this statement alone is a contradiction. The idea of creating rules so as not to get caught up in rules is a goofy idea, at best, but, in the same sense that we must understand duality to realize that we are one, I think we must use the tools we have in our consciousness to move away from our normal way of functioning.

  29. agurvey says:

    In a very simplistic sense, creating these postulations represents the idea of looking at something with a directed viewpoint, wherein the reader is being asked, at the outset, to suspend judgment and opinion, and explore the possibility of reading the piece with an open heart and mind that may not otherwise have been utilized. Simplifying further, if I were to ask someone to watch the movie, "Airplane", I would inform them that it is a comedy and ask them to suspend any disbelief to allow for all of the hijinx and shenanigans that the movie provides. In much the same way, perhaps an article needs to be crafted outlining a set of viewing rules, one of the foremost of those being that there is no "right" answer, per se, and that intellectualizing what is being said may very well diminish the emotional intent of what is being written.

  30. Alan Shelton says:

    I appreciate the reply. In the spiritual tradition I experienced we were taught that concepts if believed literally immediately eliminate the possibility of truth arising. So concepts being the basis of that tradition become pointers to a living understanding. Ramana Maharshi used to say that concepts are like thorns. You use one to eliminate the other (and here comes the important part that most folks ignore) and then you throw them both out! You have given me in your response a great tip. The set up of how a concept is to be held is key here. And so my job, which may be near impossible, is to get that context placed in the front of anything I write. For that piece of help I am indebted. A bow in your direction!

  31. agurvey says:

    A bow in yours, sir, for provoking this line of thinking. I look forward to more of your articles.

  32. Alan Shelton says:

    A great pointer in the form of a metaphor. A surfer can see the grandiosity of riding a wave. A mature surfer, even awakened to that beauty, knows how to ride the pathless path of a wave! Awakening and maturity.

  33. Alan Shelton says:

    I see your quiet disagreement as simply the doorway to experience. Within maturity there is simply the expansion and clearly no two sides. I am glad you pointed out Adyashanti's book as it is nested in our culture and is a pointer to our way of awakening. Having lived in India for years the guru/master/disciple paradigm is culturally germane to them. Our guru's attempt to migrate it into a world of egomania and are shocked at the result. From a leadership standpoint perfect maturity arises when the proper member of a team responds to the call of the mission. No specific leader needed just leadership. There is no ego glue in that kind of a format. I appreciate your comment as it is pointed to a possibility that, like Adyashanti, there is a western way to awakening.

  34. benjywertheimer says:

    A very insightful, wise, and thought-provoking post, Alan … very grateful for your offering!

    All the best to you!

  35. cathywaveyoga says:

    I am not so sure that jf failed us. I think he made illegal business decisions, re the pensions. Other actions which caused pain and turmoil may or not be illegal.

    I think those who set their fortunes and total trust and basicly gave up their independent thinking to him failed themselves. Hard lesson to learn. A very hard lesson. There are many 'models' of other groups with charismatic leaders that have exploded once publicity and divulging of actions became public. The group in Oregon, a group in Africe? in which people decided to drink juice, one might say Bikrams groups if you have ever spoken to certain robot phrase repeaters who parrot rather than think.. thre ar emore groups in which a designated leader took power which became thrown out of porportion to his/her real ability to provide leadership.