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Shamans: Healers for a Troubled World

In traditional cultures, shamans offer healing. Their qualities can advance sustainability today.

In traditional cultures, shamans offer assistance by healing, connecting, and acting as sensemakers. These roles are essential in non-traditional cultures as well. Here, Sandra Waddock, Professor of Management at Boston College, explains how to advance sustainability by acting as a shaman.

Our world today is significantly troubled. Climate change, inequity and sustainability crises are only a few of the numerous issues that suggest that the world needs to be healed.

Traditional cultures have a person or group who undertake that healing role. Called medicine men or women, priests, witch doctors, healers or sorcerers (though the latter term has dark undertones), these individuals are the shamans of traditional cultures.

They exist in the “modern” world too. Shamans are the ones we are attracted to because they seem to have an inner light. That light is one of conviction, passion about their work, openness to others and new ideas, and a willingness to do the hard work that is needed to change the world for the better.

Defining Shamans

Who is a shaman in today’s world and what kind of work do they do? Who might qualify for this label, assuming anyone wanted to take it up?

Shamans do three main things. First, and most importantly, shamans are healers. They can work at the individual level (as, for example, do psychologists, nurses or doctors), within organizations (as do organizational development and change specialists), or at a more societally oriented level (as with many activists and innovators). No matter the level, their work is aimed at making the world a better place and they use their skills at connecting and sensemaking to do this work.

Secondly, shamans are connectors.’Their work spans various boundaries. These boundaries could be disciplinary, organizational, institutional or sector-based. Shamans cross boundaries in the recognition that things that need healing cannot be solved by or within a single sector or organization. This cross-fertilization of boundary-crossing leads to new insights and ideas.

Finally, shamans are also sensemakers. Shamans take what they learn when they venture into new realms and make sense of it for others. In the case of the intellectual shamans (well-known management academics) I studied, their work has reframed issues, started new lines of thinking or created new ways of viewing things. They write papers, give talks and speeches, speak to the press, teach, post on social media or otherwise disseminate their ideas to others.

Seeing Shamans

McGill University’s Nancy Adler, for example, and Concordia University’s Paul Shrivastava have each forged new territory that links management and management education with art. It takes courage to cross such boundaries and raise issues others might consider strange. But taking those steps can provide new ways of looking at and acting in the world, ways that can help heal rifts or re-order what is disordered.

For example, Shrivastava is part of a group that is trying to reform management education “for the world” as part of his healing agenda. Adler has argued that management academics need to “dare to care” in a world where caring is typically discouraged. Tima Bansal, who is director of NBS, has worked to create the Network for Business Sustainability itself — linking academics with managers and leaders who are trying each in their own way to make the world a better place. All of these people undertake the three central tasks of the shaman.

Academics are not the only shamans (healers, connectors and sensemakers) today. People in other settings who work on the difficult issues of sustainability, climate change, inequity or innumerable other ecological, social and political problems often take on these three same tasks with courage, conviction and passion. They too are shamans. Such people tend to see the world differently — and convey these innovative perspectives through their work.

Modern shamans operate in numerous venues. Social entrepreneurs play these roles, bringing new innovations, products and organizations into existence with the intention of enhancing peoples’ lives. Company strategists can be shamans through what some call “wayfinding” activities — finding new paths through the complexity of the modern world and making sense of it for employees, customers and investors.

Becoming a Shaman

Shamans, it is clear, live among us. They attract us because of that internal light — and their desire for a better world. They can go by many different names: difference maker, edgewalker, change agent, wayfinder, entrepreneur, artist, and sometimes teacher, psychologist, or…you name the walk of life.

The point is: the world is in trouble and needs more healers in every walk of life. How will you take on the mantle of the shaman?

About the Author

Dr. Sandra Waddock is the Galligan Chair of Strategy, Carroll School Scholar of Corporate Responsibility, and Professor of Management in the Carroll School of Management at Boston College (BC). Her most recent book is Intellectual Shamans: Management Academics Making a Difference(Cambridge University Press, 2015). Widely published, Dr. Waddock’s current research interests are in the area of shamanism in the modern world, large systems change, corporate responsibility, management education, and multi-sector collaboration. In 2011, she received the Best Book Award for The difference makers from the Social Issues in Management Division of the Academy of Management. In 2005, she was awarded the Faculty Pioneer Award for External Impact by the Aspen Institute and World Resources Institute, in 2011 the David L. Bradford Outstanding Educator Award by the Organizational Behavior Teaching Society, and in 2014 a Lifetime Achievement Award in Collaboration Research by the Cross Sector Social Interaction Symposium and Partnerships Resource Centre, Erasmus University.

Twitter: @SandraWaddock and @IntellectShaman

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  • Sandra Waddock

    Sandra Waddock is the Galligan Chair of Strategy, Carroll School Scholar of Corporate Responsibility, and Professor of Management in the Carroll School of Management at Boston College. Widely published, Dr. Waddock's research interests are in the area of large system change, intellectual shamanism, stewardship of the future, wisdom, corporate responsibility, management education, and multi-sector collaboration. Author or editor of thirteen books, her most recent books are Healing the World (Routledge/Greenleaf, 2017), Intellectual Shamans: Management Academics Making a Difference (Cambridge, 2015), Building the Responsible Enterprise: Where Vision and Values Meet Value (with Andreas Rasche, Stanford, 2012), and SEE Change: Making the Change to a Sustainable Enterprise Economy (with Malcolm McIntosh, Greenleaf, 2011). Dr. Waddock has published over 140 articles on corporate citizenship, sustainable enterprise, difference making, wisdom, stewardship of the future, responsibility management systems, corporate responsibility, management education, and related topics.

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