Rituals are as old as mankind. As we grow up we are slowly brought into them by families, friends, religious communities and teachers. But we don’t really get them until we are much more seasoned in life’s perils and thrills. In today’s obsessively rational society many people don’t get them at all. Why are rituals so critical to leadership?
Quite simply, rituals are vehicles of emotion, and leadership mostly takes place in our hearts: we follow those who make us feel safe, worthy and belonging to something bigger than ourselves. Rituals concentrate our attention on certain emotions, adding each individual contribution together to create a shared sensation of significance, which seems to magically multiply exponentially sometimes: “Whoa!! Did you feel that?”
In just a few of such “Whoa!” occasions I have fallen in love with the ritual of the talking stick. Several facilitators at the prestigious Foundation for Natural Leadership in the Netherlands carry a wooden stick adorned by several colors to symbolize awakening, wisdom, inner shadows and sharing. They are made with special care by native Indians in Canada on a chosen day of the year. A quick search on Google shows there are many variations to talking sticks, and many tribal traditions that use them in their gatherings and councils. The talking stick, I kid you not, would seem to have a life of its own.
A ritual only works if everybody involved agrees to take it seriously, performing each task and symbolic gesture with reverence. In the case of the talking stick, the ritual consists of leaving the stick in the center of the circle formed by participants, and picking it up if you want to speak out loud. Nobody can talk without the talking stick. The leader or facilitator of such an exercise, of course, is responsible for setting the tone, creating the mindset and walking his or her own talk when performing the ritual.
You might sit there thinking “what am I doing here with all these strangers and what on Earth am I going to say when it’s my turn?” Or you might start playing your thoughts around in your mind to prepare your own speech instead of listening to the guy talking at the moment, holding the stick in his hand. It doesn’t really matter. The collective energy of the people assembled around you will pull you in to the ritual sooner or later. This is the enchantment of the stick: it harnesses the energy of all those involved, sweeping over you gradually like an ancient aboriginal drum rhythm, seeping into your bones and mobilizing your limbs before you know what’s happening.
No matter what you might have thought about before the stick fell in your hands, everything can change when you grab it. As we sat in a circle around a fire at night last week, one man blurted out how it was five years since his mother had died and he felt he needed to get to understand the historic awkwardness between them a little better. Somebody else shared how much he had feared losing his wife during the birth of this third child, and how he realized he wanted to spend more time with his family. We were all strangers to each other. Investment bankers, hot-shot executives, elite business school researchers and no-nonsense business owners. We hadn’t planned to share such intimate details with each other. We were conquered by the power of an age-old ritual, which brought us together on a level of sharing we could easily relate to. It’s like we bridged all our differences –gender, age, country, profession, religion, you name it!—in a single chat around a mesmerizing camp fire.
In my case the stick seemed to sew together a heavy storm of thoughts, doubts and worries which had been circling over my head all day. To the point that I was quite hesitant about taking up the dammed stick to share my unruly and very scary insides. It worked wonders on me. I picked it up and breathed heavily a few times. Words came to me in such clarity and simplicity that I almost wondered if anybody had cast a spell on me. The mental chaos which had bothered me all day dissolved as I felt supported by a bunch of strangers who had promised to respect each other’s secrecy, speak from their hearts and perform this simple but powerful ritual.
Was it the stick? Was it the fire? Was it the facilitator or was there some scientifically provable substance mixed in with our supper? I don’t know. And frankly, I don’t care.
What I do care about is how that ritual melted resistance in such intellectually sophisticated people. How softly and respectfully each executive found his moment and pace to let go of armors and share his insides. How very significant and beautiful it felt to all of us. How human we felt together. How together we felt with all humans: before us, beside us, after us.
Rituals harness our feelings, emotions and sensations to create a sense of community without which we can not solve the challenges we face today. The Dalai Lama tweeted this week that “since climate change and global economy now affect us all, we have to develop a sense of the oneness of humanity”.
Yes. Our destinies are truly joined together more than ever before in human history. Yet our differences keep us busy arguing, fighting, debating and doing our own thing. Maybe it’s time to recycle our earliest ancestors’ tribal rituals, symbols and beliefs…those through which they risked their own lives if it meant saving their tribes.
I tell you this: without ritual there can be no leadership. You may only lead your teams if they feel they are part of something bigger than themselves. If they want to sacrifice their own wellbeing to build something better for all. If they drive you to be the best possible leader you could ever be every single day, just for the honor of making their sacrifices worthwhile. If you feed on their joyful success as if it were your own.
Bring rituals back into your business. Invest time and effort into finding the ones your people respond to. Repeat them again and again until you all stop giggling nervously and finally give in to the shared vibe of belonging. Then your destinies will have linked together to do something more beautiful and significant than you ever thought you would even try. Then you will feel humane on a whole new level.