Shamanic Leadership

  • Sandra WaddockEmail author
Living reference work entry


Shamanic Leaders Shamanic Tradition Shamanic Tasks Shamanic Skills Cultural Mythology 
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A shamanic leader is someone who focuses on healing or making the organization, community, or world better, connecting across boundaries and disciplines to create integrative insights and practices, and sensemaking to provide meaning and purpose. These three functions of healing, connecting, and sensemaking are undertaken in the service of a better world.


In many traditional communities, an important leadership figure is the local shaman, the medicine woman or man, often a locally respected, even revered figure in the community (Waddock 2017). Many traditional and Indigenous communities rely on shamans for their healing abilities, as well as their wisdom. Shamans work to heal the community and individual patients. Though not all leaders are shamans, many more leaders and enterprises of all sorts could benefit from explicitly taking on the healing mantle of the shaman and acknowledging that their work involves three core shamanic tasks: healing, connecting, and sensemaking (See Egri and Frost 1995; Frost and Egri 1994; Waddock 2014). Primarily, of course, the shaman is a healer, as Serge Kahili King says, of relationships of all sorts – with the self, with others, with the community, and in the world. As healers, shamans in traditional societies are the medicine men and women of their communities, called upon when someone is ill or there are problems in the community that require resolution.

Typically, most people today do not think of leaders as shamans. Yet using the skills of the shaman is arguably very much what successful leaders do as they help institutions, agencies, enterprises, communities, and organizations of all sorts cope with the many societal, political, and ecological issues now facing them internally and externally. Major external issues range from growing global inequality and climate change, both of which threaten the stability and longevity of societies (Diamond 2005). In addition, sustainability issues like topsoil erosion, pollution of the oceans, and deforestation, among many others, create the potential for major human crises. These types of conditions create the need for leaders to act in ways that heal not only their enterprises but also to create new business models that better cope with the external conditions that support those enterprises. Such issues – and there are many – pose significant problems for leaders as they relate to their stakeholders and the natural environment. The breadth and impact of issues like these on enterprise today means that leaders in all kinds of organizations and agencies face new demands to use the power of their enterprise, whatever it may be, to bring about some degree of healing in the world.

Background of Shamanism

Shamans are said to have been the world’s first healers, priests, artists, storytellers, timekeepers, therapists, and, of course, doctors and nurses, among others, of today’s professions. Early signifiers or depictions of the shaman have been found in prehistoric cave paintings and other artifacts (Krippner 2004). Shamanism is among if not the world’s oldest set of traditions, though typically each community developed its own specific traditions, beliefs, and practices. It is often associated with spirituality, locally specific rituals and practices, and a wide range of different belief systems, yet there are common threads across these many traditions that evidence themselves in the three main roles or functions of the shaman – healing, connecting, and sensemaking.

In traditional cultures, shamans orient their healing mainly toward individual patients and sometimes the community. Traditional shamans tend to work in altered states of consciousness, attained through a variety of means that include drumming, dance, drugs, among other approaches, to achieve what is essentially a hypnotic state. In that altered state of consciousness, they “connect” across realms to find information that can be used in healing, often seeking that information from spirits or guides, and bring that information back to help others heal in the sensemaking process.

The healing orientation of shamans differentiates them from so-called sorcerers, who use their skills and powers for selfish or negative purposes. Shamans are typically oriented toward the good of the whole system, at whatever level of analysis they are working. Because their work involves crossing boundaries of various sorts, they tend to see things holistically and systemically. Indeed, shamanism is sometimes associated with “seeing,” in the sense of being mystically visionary, and it is in part the capacity to see what others do not – connect the dots – along with the ability to reframe situations and what has been learned that gives shamanic leaders power. Today’s shamanic leaders “see” what others do not, in part by being able to connect across ideas, systems, and disciplines that others are not doing.

The belief in many traditional cultures is that when people get sick or the community is having problems, it is because their cultural mythologies, the ideas and beliefs that shape the community’s sense of itself and how it acts in the world, are somehow askew (Dow 1986). Traditional shamans do their work in part by reshaping dysfunctional cultural mythologies using information gathered when they “connect” with other realms than their ordinary or day-to-day realm. In these others, often spiritual realms, traditional shamans find new insights and information and bring that information back to their normal realm to help with healing what needs to be changed. In doing so, shamans also interpret and make sense of these new insights or information for others. These three activities – healing, connecting, and sensemaking in the service of a better community or world – are the main activities of traditional shamans. They are equally important, though accomplished differently, for today’s shamanic leaders, who may not even be aware that they are undertaking them.

The connecting activity is similar if not the same as what psychologist Karl Jung called tapping into the collective unconscious, where wisdom is said to reside. Meditators and others in altered states of consciousness can similarly open to new awareness to gain insights or wisdom. Connecting, e.g., linking ideas, insights, and even people, can also happen in the state of flow, that is, when someone is “in the zone.” Flow, first described in depth by psychologist Mihály Csikszentmihályi (1991), is also an altered state of consciousness that good leaders and coaches can bring about in individuals, teams, teams, and even whole enterprises. Flow is that state when time both disappears and expands, and the person is fully engaged in a challenging task or with people or a situation and feels energized and completely absorbed in the task/situation at hand.

From these types of altered state of consciousness, shamans and shamanic leaders can sometimes bring new insights and information back to their normal day-to-day realm or community. Using that information, they can then help others understand what they have learned by creating new or revised ways of viewing the world or reframing “broken” or problematic cultural mythologies. Doing that is engaging in the process of sensemaking, sometimes referred to as the spiritual leadership of the shaman.

Shamanism as Leadership Practice Today

Today many people practice shamanism using traditional approaches, rituals, and practices. Using rituals from cultures other than one’s own is not, however, what is meant by shamanic leadership. Shamanic leaders as healers work to heal their enterprises and communities in the context of today’s complexities, working holistically and systemically to ensure that the enterprise operates in harmony with its stakeholders and the natural environment’s constraints. Today’s shamanic leaders as connectors connect across disciplinary, functional, sectoral, organizational, institutional boundaries and stakeholders to glean new insights, create new collaborative possibilities, and begin to work toward resolving difficult and complex problems with connected others. As sensemakers, they develop meaning out of the collaborative and systemic possibilities that exist and help others understand how all the “pieces” of different types of activities fit together, as well as developing ideas and insights shared with others. In other words, shamanic leaders take a healing attitude and orientation toward their work and use their ability to see the system and its parts as a whole to connect across a variety of domains as needed. They then help make sense (a new cultural mythology) of what is happening or needs to happen.

Notably, today’s shamanic leaders work in the modern context, without necessarily tapping into rituals and belief systems that are integral and important to traditional cultures. While important and relevant in their own contexts, traditional rituals and practices may not be as relevant in our technologically sophisticated, highly interconnected, industrialized, or developing world. In fact, many leaders using the shamanic skills probably do not see themselves as shamans. They might not even relate to the term. Below, each of the three main shamanic tasks of healing, connecting, and sensemaking is explored in a bit more detail as expressed today.

Healing. Shamanic healing integrates heart, mind, body, and soul through what is sometimes called an integral practice, which simply means having a variety of practices that attempt to keep all aspects of the person healthy. Shamans and shamanic leaders tend to think holistically. Importantly, the words whole, health, heal, and holy all derive from the same old English word, hāl, linking these concepts together in the work of the shaman. Holistic perspectives are integrative in that they do not separate mind and body on the individual level nor do they attempt to tease apart systems into their component parts, though they do ensure that all of those elements are working together successfully. Shamanic leaders with holistic perspectives see whole systems and enterprises as units that need to have integrity in and of themselves – in a sense, they are sacred or holy. Integrity, another form of wholeness, explicitly acknowledges the incorporation of responsibility and ethical considerations into the work of the enterprise or community as it fulfills its purposes.

For shamanic leaders, healing begins with the self so that strengths can be tapped in tough situations. It is difficult to lead or heal others effectively without significant self-awareness, self-regulation, motivational abilities, empathy, and social skills, which are the attributes of emotional intelligence; hence shamanic leaders are likely to have high levels of emotional intelligence. In addition, healing for leaders involves the capacity to see the world or situation realistically and then take necessarily to make changes that hope to improve the system or situation. That is, the shamanic leader works to make fracture, fragmented, or dysfunctional systems whole again, so that they function well and able to act fully as persons, rather than fragmented into disconnected units that do not relate well to each other.

Connecting. The second major function of the shamanic leader is that of connecting. Traditional shamans sometimes “journey” to other realms using imaginal (vivid and realistic imagination) thinking when they are in altered states of consciousness, where they collect wisdom, insights, and new ideas. Shamanic leaders can similarly connect, e.g., to the collective unconscious, during meditation or flow experiences. Alternatively and perhaps more in keeping with modern sensibilities, they can simply work across different types of disciplinary, functional, or institutional boundaries to gain new insights, ideas, and innovations. As working with a variety of stakeholders has become increasingly important in organizational success, this skill of connecting and understanding has become ever more important.

Internally, for example, leaders have to ensure that employees and, when relevant, other stakeholders are working together and doing their best for the enterprise, providing core purposes that attract people and enable them to commit to those purposes. Further, leaders have to ensure that their enterprise, whatever it is, develops a sound – and broadly shared – strategic vision that copes with the external threats and opportunities that exist. In the way that they view their own enterprises, shamanic leaders connect people together with common or shared purposes and vision and connect the enterprise to its broader environment through responsible and ethical practices that are viewed as integral to how the business actually implements its business model. Because boundary spanning of all sorts has become imperative for many types of enterprise today, digitally connected as they are with the rest of the world, the shamanic skill of connecting is also increasingly important. Just getting the insights from diverse sources and “connecting the dots” to create a vision, strategy, purpose, or practices, however, is insufficient. The shamanic leader also needs to use the sensemaking skills of the shaman to interpret and make sense of what has been learned for others.

Sensemaking. Sensemaking is a word coined by management scholar Karl Weick to mean making sense of or interpreting and frame events, ideas, visions, and narratives in ways that help others understand them. Sensemaking is important particularly where there is a difference between reality as it exists and is perceived and some desired reality or future. Since shamans believe that healthy cultural myths are important to both individual and community well-being, when myths become dysfunctional or “broken,” they can do harm to the community. Similarly, when leaders articulate a vision for their enterprise, help stakeholders better understand what is happening, and work collaboratively with others to create meaningful insights, experiences, and work, they are sensemaking.

When sensemaking is done well, shamanic leaders in a sense become storytellers and are sometimes seen as visionaries. Good sensemaking involves working with the core units of cultures and memes, that is, ideas, phrases, images, artistic expressions, and brands, to construct credible and viable stories or narratives (Waddock 2017). When such stories, narratives, and images are resonant, they tend to be amplified by moving from person to person. Sensemakers use powerful and resonant memes in their leadership roles to inspire others, create powerful images of the future, and help guide stakeholders toward common goals. Shamanic leaders clarify reality through their sensemaking as it is experienced by others by reshaping it in powerful new ways, especially by articulating purpose and vision.

Shamanic leaders integrating healing, connecting, and sensemaking. Dealing with external stakeholders is important for many in leadership positions, and, of course, there are stakeholders internal to the enterprise whose interests and needs also require the types of skills shamanic leaders can bring. Internally, leaders have to unite employees and other key stakeholders around shared ideas, purposes, and visions that enable them to commit to the enterprise and do their best work. Doing that is engaging with the healing and sensemaking functions of the shaman. Not only do leaders have to accomplish whatever purpose they or their enterprise has established, but they also need to make sense of that purpose and its accompanying vision for others, which is clearly a sensemaking task. To accomplish the sensemaking, they need to draw from the wisdom and insights of many different stakeholders, who are within their own organization, industry, or sector, as well as ranging widely across many different types of functions, activities, and enterprises whose activities affect the leader’s own enterprise.


Today and into the future, leaders also need to find new insights, innovations, and vision in a very difficult external context with many potential sources of disruption. Successfully linking or connecting stakeholders or creating innovative visions means connecting across organizational, functional, sector, and institutional boundaries to gain insights that are not available from a single source. Combining sensemaking and connecting, shamanic leaders also bring their enterprise and its stakeholders together around a common set of purposes and help others see how the whole system operates effectively in its context.

Shamanic leadership involves some risk taking, as shamans need to find their own core purpose and heal themselves before they are able to heal others. This personal healing has been called “becoming fully who you must be” rather than who others think you need to be. Doing so enables leaders to use their unique gifts toward somehow making their enterprise and, accordingly, the world a better place. Notably, the orientation of the shamanic leader is toward healing – building a better world – rather than being self-interested.

Today’s shamanic leadership adapts the core constructs of shamanism to the modern setting. The three tasks of healing, connecting, and sensemaking can enhance leadership by drawing on deep sources of creativity, insight, and knowledge, crossing traditional boundaries to gain new insights and making sense of new realizations and awareness for themselves and others. Doing so ethically and responsibly, as shamans must because of the power they tend to command, can help create responsible agencies and organizations. Bringing people together around a common vision and strategy, for example, integrates all three shamanic tasks. It operationalizes healing, e.g., ensuring that people are integrated into the enterprise successfully and able to do their best work. By working across stakeholders and sectors, gathering information and insights from all of them to ensure a rich set of data on which to draw, the shamanic leader is connecting. When clarifying and explaining ideas, initiative, and vision to others, the leader is sensemaking, e.g., developing purpose among relevant stakeholders that unites them around a common vision.



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© Springer International Publishing AG, part of Springer Nature 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Carroll School of ManagementBoston CollegeChestnut HillUSA