Change Agents as (Intellectual) Shamans

Transformational change makers are shamans. In her book Intellectual Shamans Sandra Waddock focuses on 28 leading business academics of transformational intellectual impact that include ones well-known as change makers such as Otto Scharmer, David Cooperrider and Ed Schein. It is a book that presents insight about the development and work of change agents as shamans by a leading scholar (and close colleague) in the field of business in society. The warm, personal view of colleagues is developed through conversations and their work.

“Intellectual shamanism,” Waddock explains, “(is) intellectual work (theory, research, writing, and teaching) that integrates healing, connecting (intermediation or the mediating of boundaries), and sense-making to serve the greater good.

Challenging myths is associated with one of three shaman roles: healer.  Presented as perhaps the most important role, the activity is associated with making whole. Consider Ed Freeman, considered to many as the founder of stakeholder theory. He challenged the myth that the purpose of the firm is to provide shareholders’ financial rewards, by expanding the purpose to be stakeholder benefit. And healing is what leads to the stance of Bill Torbert’s leading work on the methodology of action inquiry that led him to not only apply questions about leadership to others’ actions, but to his own as well.

The second shamanic role is “connector”: crossing boundaries and making new connections. Judi Neal connects, for example, the spiritual and business with business people who bring meditation and contemplative practices to their work. David Cooperrider has developed appreciative inquiry in part from a drive to integrate theory and practice. Karl Weick of sense-making fame pioneered the bridge between psychology and organizational studies. Maurizio Zollo has made connection between disciplines a hallmark of his work on development of sustainable enterprise – bringing in neurology, for example; connecting practices such as traditional education, yoga and meditation; and bringing together inductive and deductive methodologies. Jim Walsh is asking how to breathe communitarian sentiments into a contractual world.

Another big connector illustration for intellectual shamans is with making the hidden visible. They often articulate what others do not, will not, or cannot see. Henry Mintzberg, a leading strategy academic, considers himself a debunker and comments “…any CEO who accepts to be paid 400 times as much as workers in that company is not a leader. So the Fortune 500 companies have virtually no leaders.” Stuart Hart, for example, points out that the “greening” strategy of corporations is not the depth of change and transformation that is necessary; leapfrog to next generation is required. And he’s actively doing that with a new Indian Institute for Sustainable Enterprise.

The third core function of shamans is sensemaker.   It’s a quality more commonly associated with academics: the ability to step back from what others are deeply engaged with, to provide context and meaning; to see patterns emerging. However, for intellectual shamans the sensemaking tends to more categorically involve not just “seeing” intellectually, but feeling and instinct. The sensemaking draws from systems understanding, moral imagination, and aesthetic sensibility as core elements of wisdom. Mintzberg talks of how everyone thought managers plan, organize, coordinate and control…and he pointed out that they get interrupted a lot and that things emerge rather than follow defined plans. Sensemaking is seen as critical to dealing with “wicked problems” that require making many connections. Andy Hoffman expresses the need for being an intellectual as well as an academic: “…an intellectual makes (a topic) accessible and relevant to a broader audience. He or she joins the public debate and changes minds. Not all academics do that.”

These shamans have the range of traditional academic tools. However, they tend to be action researchers – collaboratively doing as well as analyzing. Action inquiry and appreciative inquiry are illustrations. And the intellectual shamans have some more special tools, too. Waddock writes about trance-like states as “flow”: being absorbed so deeply in data and being with the looking and listening, when insights arise. The state is energizing and life-enhancing. A distinctive investigatory framework is an orientation towards highest aspirations and broad well-being. They often have a sort of skunk works style of operating (hang-off-the-side-things in Stuart Hart’s words) in management school with associated institutes or programs where they create protected spaces for their unorthodox work (but as Hart comments, have little impact on the management schools themselves). The tools and methodologies of intellectual shamans is one area I wish the book developed further.

A common theme amongst the intellectual shamans is their drive – compulsion? – to follow their nose and their inspiration, rather than to simply follow the prescribed path to become a top academic with A-journal publications. The latter rose out of the former.   Otto Scharmer talks of how he says “yes” to something, before he knows how he’ll do it. They might be considered by some to be simply stubborn, persistent or determined; all that is true. But they were also simply willfully following their own inner spirit. Could they really have done anything else? This quality also leads them to be risk-takers.

In summary, three characteristics are noted for intellectual shamans. They are:

  • Systemic, holistic and humanistic
  • Pioneering, risk-taking and entrepreneurial
  • Addressing wicked problems and unasked questions

All of this seems very applicable to transformational change makers in general.

Waddock has her own shamanic traits, although she hesitates to apply that term to herself. Challenging traditional views of academics’ role to include intellectual shamanism is certainly taking on a popular myth.  And the personal account of the 28 academics does a wonderful job of presenting them as whole persons.

For further reading: Sandra Waddock, Intellectual Shamans: Management Academics Making a Difference (Cambridge, 2015)

Reflections from Sandra on the blog:

Steve gets it in this blog on change agents.  Change makers are shamans.  And…conversely…shamans are change agents.  Although the book focuses on the role of academics as such change agents/intellectual shamans, I would add that it is important to recognize that anyone, in any walk of life, can take on the three roles of the shaman articulated by the stories of the management academics included in the book—healing, connecting, and sensemaking.  It is true that sensemaking is the particular purview of many academics, but think of the civic activists, artists, psychologists, musicians, and entrepreneurs who also help us to make sense of things in new ways, connect across boundaries that others have or do not cross, and work to make the world a better place.

What you need is the openness to ‘seeing’ that the change agent as shaman has, and the willingness to take the necessary risks—for you will surely be a maverick if you pursue the path of the change agent as shaman.  You need to find a purpose that is true for you and that helps to heal our troubled world.  And you need to have the persistence and patience to overcome the obstacles that will surely be in your path.

Thank you, Steve, for opening up this conversation.

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